An impressive 330 million people sought out America’s national parks last year to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial. According to Christopher Reynolds at the Los Angeles Times, the total visitations amounted to a 7.72 percent increase from 2015, which was itself a record-setting year. But the increased foot traffic to America’s “best idea” may have put too much strain on the park system. Yesterday the National Parks Service issued a press release proposing to increase the price of entry for 17 of the most popular parks during “peak visitor season” to fund park maintenance.
The proposed fee hike, which in some cases would more than double the cost of entry, would apply to Acadia, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion. It would go into effect during “peak visitor season,” which NPS defines as the five months of the year when the parks are typically busiest.
The NPS estimates the proposed change—charging $70 for non-commercial vehicles, $50 for motorcycles and $30 for people on bike or foot—could generate an additional $70 million in park revenue each year. (The release notes that annual passes for any of the 17 parks would be available for $75.)
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke says that the increased entrance fees are necessary to shore up the park system’s infrastructure and ensure that visitors can “enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”
NPS currently has a backlog of maintenance and improvement projects that adds up to $12 billion. As the Denver Post’s Jason Blevins notes, however, there’s disagreement over how best to raise the funds. Jeremy Barnum, NPS head of public affairs, tells Blevins the increase would balance the need for costly repairs while still giving visitors a good value. But critics like Theresa Pierno of the advocacy group National Parks Conservation Association, argue visitors shouldn’t have to bear the costs of the maintenance alone. (Pierno also points out that the Trump administration recently proposed a $1.5 billion cut to the NPS budget.) Over at Deadspin, Lindsey Adler is another to voice concern, writing “[p]otentially pricing low-income Americans out of national parks is a step that runs counter to the very spirit that went into the creation of the parks in the first place.”
The National Parks Service was created in 1916, with a mandate, laid out in a law known as the Organic Act, to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
When the park system was first established, it generated heated controversy, with naturalists like John Muir arguing for pure preservation and forester Gifford Pinchot arguing for a model of the parks that would promote the use of their timber and other resources, recounts National Geographic. But over the years controversy has faded away and the parks have famously been called, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “the best idea we ever had.”
A public comment period over the proposed fee increases will run through November 23, during which time people are invited to comment on the potential change by mail or online.