What $$$ Should We Pay for Recreation?

Remember the old National Parks Pass?  For $50US it allowed users access to America’s National Parks where fees were charged for free for up to one year.  But it had a shortcoming among the complicated land management system in the United States; if your trip took you to a differently designated public land, such as a National Forest or Bureau of Land Management area, the National Park Pass did not work.

At the same time, the government of the United States offered the Eagle Pass.  For a much greater fee, it gave the user and his or her immediate family access to all of the federally managed parkland.  But it was a difficult pass for the various park agencies to coordinate (accepting fees, issuing cards and maintaining records).

Around 2005 the National Park Service lead the way for the other land mangement agencies to issue a new pass, the America the Beautiful Pass, to replace the National Pass, Eagle Pass and the other annual park passes.  The pass costs $80US and gives access to all of the publically accessible land under the control of the United States government (but not the state governments, such as state parks).

I worked on Capitol Hill when this transition was being finalized and at the last minute I worked with the Congressman I served to make this pass available at a significant discount to Veterans that have been discharged under any category other than dishonorable (honorable, medical, and so forth) . We thought it made sense: Give veterans free access to the very land that they served and fought to defend.

We faced resistence from the National Park Service, but we succeeded in starting a chain reaction among the federally controlled public land managers: One by one they announced that on Veterans Day (November 11) each year, US servicemen and women and veterans would be permitted in the park for free.  It was a small consolation, but we took it.  The Veterans Eagle Parks Pass Act continues to be introduced in Congress and seeks support for enactment.

Through this effort, I learned that the land managers missed some opportunities to decide what the right prices ought to be and who could or should be given special access.  Of course, politics hampered some of that discussion.  Admitedly, my boss and I probably did not help with out last minute efforts.  Currently, the pass gives a lifetime benefit to permanently disabled Americans for free and sells the pass to Senior Citizens (Americans over the age of 62) for $10US and is good for the rest of their lives.  This is great, but my boss and I felt that veterans were also deserving.

So why not veterans?  And why was it priced at $80 for the year?  The park service deemed that properly identifying veterans was too difficult and that the $80 price tag made sense to raise revenue while covering expenses.

Land management agencies are all feeling the pinch of the down economy.  Inflation has been creeping upward and governments are all seeking more revenue to pay their employees (wage earners just like you and I) pay for their overhead.  This even applies to the park rangers and other workers in public land management.

What is really dismal, is that it is possible that the land management agencies could increase user fees and access fees to prohibit we hikers and climbers from accessing these great lands regularly.  Most notably, we have heard a lot of discussion about this at Mount Rainier and for climbing Denali.  Theoretically it could become cost prohibitive.

The American Alpine Club (AAC) points out in its policies that revenue to access fees are often arbitrary.  Arguably, fees are sometimes assessed just for the sake of revenue even though there is no cost of maintenance.

We ought to scrutinize the fees charged at the parks we visit.  They are a tax on our ability to enjoy the land.  We ought to weigh in on and speak up.

Well, thanks for visiting again.  If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter (@SuburbanMtnr).


2 thoughts on “What $$$ Should We Pay for Recreation?

  1. “Arguably, fees are sometimes assessed just for the sake of revenue even though there is no cost of maintenance.”

    Please respond by listing which Park has no cost of maintenance.

    “(Fees) are a tax on our ability to enjoy the land.”

    Fees are what help enable our ability to enjoy the land. It takes millions of dollars to purchase, protect, develop, and maintain public land. Do you think that should all come from the General Fund and the people who use the facilities should not contribute?

    The cost of any permit is a miniscule fraction of the overall cost of any trip. You said Mount Rainier could “become cost prohibitive”? Are you referring to the thousands of dollars people are happy to spend on flashy gear, or the $20 for the permit (for up to 12 people)?

    No one sets foot on Rainier without at least 1,000 dollars worth of gear on their back. That money all goes to private companies. The 20 bucks goes to enable you to be there at all.

    Without funding there is no public land, and without public land this wouldn’t be a world most of us would want to live in. Don’t bite the hand that feeds us all.

  2. It’s good to hear from you on my site, Buzz.

    I was not trying to subtly state a specific policy recommendation or suggest we ban entrance and other user fees. These fees supplement the parks’ revenue. (Even the now-$30 Rainier climbing fee covers the mountaineering rangers and rescue fund.) Congress appropriates certain funds to the Deparment of the Interior and Department of Agriculture for the maintenance of public lands — which they often say are not enough, and so do some hikers and climbers. I am not arguing what about what is sufficient, though I am thinking about it.

    The crux of this for me is that I have been wrestling with an idea stated by Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods. He worried that if we over fund the public lands’ maintance funds, would we end up having too many high-tech interpretive centers or fancy parking lots that ruin a perfect meadow or mountainside? I don’t know, but it worries me too.

    As the AAC says in its policy, “Fees charged to backcountry users may not benefit the backcountry, but instead pay for front-country facilities such as visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic areas.” A lot of them do this, but it is unfair.

    Also, I am sure that this is wishful thinking, but it would be great if the leave-no-trace ethic became a widely accepted mentality and wilderness could be wilderness by simply designation and regulation without maintenance costs.

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