Devil's Advocate: Increase the National Park Entrance Fee

In a recent job application, I was asked to discuss the merit of one idea supported by the political party I generally oppose. I decided to focus on the proposed increase in entrance fees at National Parks - a proposition I immediately opposed on first impression, though, after research and reflection, began to accept and possibly even advocate.

Among other reasons, it could lead to less bros facetiming at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Among other reasons, it could lead to less bros facetiming at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, recently proposed increased fees at some of the most popular National Parks during peak season – a plan which has garnered quite a bit of controversy. I revere the US National Parks (I’ve seen 42 of the 59 and aim to see the remainder in the next several years), so this issue especially hits home. At first I felt outraged – a doubling of pricing seems ludicrous. But as my emotions calmed and I looked at the proposal realistically, I began to understand that it could actually benefit not only the park service, but the general population.

This price hike, in theory, helps alleviate two issues that the Park Service is facing: overpopulation and a growing $11.3 billion maintenance backlog. There is undoubtedly an overpopulation issue that needs to be addressed, especially at the parks that were highlighted. These parks don’t have the capacity for the crowds that are visiting, especially with the already-failing infrastructure.  Zion National Park shuts down roads during peak season, requiring visitors to shuttle; last year there were lines 300 people long to get onto the shuttle. That is absurd and unacceptable. National Parks are an outlet – a way of escaping and detaching from the stresses of society. Standing in amusement-park-length lines destroys the visitor experience. I’ve personally experienced the overpopulation problem – on a roadtrip in October I tried to visit Yosemite Valley on a Saturday morning – a terrible mistake. I drove around for two hours trying to find a parking space, only to frustratingly decide to leave without even exiting my car. Overpopulation is unquestionably an issue and this could certainly help alleviate it.

Truthfully, if people are deterred by these fees, an unexpected multitude of benefits occur:

  • Improved Visitor Experience - Those who continue to go to the parks during peak season have an improved experience due to the reduced crowds.
  • Off-Season Experience - Those who delay their plans until after peak season will get a unique park experience. A fall day at the Grand Canyon is just as beautiful and, with the reduced crowds, is arguably more enjoyable than a day in peak season.
  • Underappreciated-Park Visitation - Many other parks don’t get the love and respect they deserve. After my traumatic experience in Yosemite Valley, I drove a few hours to the majestic Pinnacles National Park, where I had splendid day - passing only two other people on the trail. People should see these underappreciated places, and perhaps this will encourage them to do so. In seeing a majority of the parks, I can attest that not a single one is boring.
  • Annual Pass Proliferation - Despite this fee increase, the National Park Service plans to maintain its annual pass’ cost of $80 – just $10 more than the peak-season entrance rate. Thus, the price increase may encourage more purchases of the annual pass, consequently encouraging more visits to more national parks – an established benefit to the public. I’ve owned a pass for the last three years and have never regretted the purchase.

If people are not deterred by the increased fees, then the Park Service doubles its income during these peak times, marginally helping the growing maintenance backlog. Realistically, this proposal won’t drastically affect the overall cost to visit the parks - it is estimated that a family of four traveling to the Grand Canyon will pay over $3,000 for a week’s vacation. A $30 increase in entrance fees is negligible in relation to the full travel expense, and it directly benefits the parks.

That being said, the increased income from this measure will simply not be enough to overcome the deficit and backlog, especially with the proposed 13% budget cut for NPS discretionary spending. Although this idea may slightly improve park experience and the deficit, we need an increased investment in these places in order to truly maintain them as the treasures that they are.