How visitors can prevent national parks from being loved to death

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While national parks were breaking attendance records this summer, several parks have instituted reservation systems, with varying degrees of success. But there is another tool that could help alleviate the record number of crowds on the park’s resources and infrastructure: improving the entrance fee system to allow visitors to contribute to the sustainability of the parks.

As the number of visits increases, the wear and tear of the parks has become more apparent than ever. Fee revenue not only helps manage the snowballing costs of visitor impacts amid record attendance, but it can also ensure that we preserve parks in the future.

With the lifting of pandemic restrictions and pent-up demand from travelers, park visits – and the impacts on visitors – are increasing. The effects are easy to see in the country’s oldest national park.

“When you bring a million extra visitors a year to this park, what does that mean for waste disposal? How many more times do you have to clean bathrooms? Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly told the Property and Environmental Research Center.

A little over a decade ago, Yellowstone had never received more than 3 million visits. Today, more than 4 million are basically guaranteed each year. So far this year, the park has welcomed more than 4.47 million visitors, a new record.

These tours translate into millions of kilometers traveled by vehicles on the roads, countless steps on the trails and walks and who knows how many flushes take place. And as is the case in parks from California to Maine, years of impact have already accumulated.

The entire park system is grappling with approximately $ 12 billion in deferred maintenance. Yellowstone faces approximately $ 586 million in overdue repairs. Paved roads are more than half of that, but it also includes historic buildings, employee housing, water and sewer systems, and more.

“We need about $ 7 million just to replace the boardwalks,” says Sholly.

Fees are a crucial funding source to help cope with visitor impacts, in part because they do a good job of aligning incentives. By law, 80 percent of royalty income must be kept where it is collected and spent so as to directly benefit visitors. This means that visitor revenues are not subject to many of the political considerations that influence Congress appropriations, which fund the majority of parks budgets. It also means that field staff who know the parks inside and out can decide how best to serve visitors with these funds.

Sholly says that “the importance of retaining entrance fees is absolutely essential. Attendance increases, this translates into more impact, it also translates into more income for the park. “

The admission fee is modest considering what you get in return. In Yellowstone and many other ‘destination’ parks, the standard $ 35 pass is valid for a whole vehicle for a week – a pittance to be able to see the Grand Prismatic, marvel at the geysers and sulfur pots, spot moose and bison and visit any of the park’s other wonders.

According to Sholly, the average stay for a family of four is around three days, so the entrance fee “breaks down to around $ 2.89 per person per day,” he says, “an amount very little of the total cost of their trip “.

This echoes what Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider recently told E&E News about the $ 6 reservation fee applied at Cadillac Mountain, a popular national park site.

“Most of the people who come here,” Schneider said, “they spend $ 300 a night on a hotel, and transportation, everything else. It’s a small price as part of their vacation.

While the revenue from fees is already doing a lot of good, there are several improvements that would help do more. First, Congress should permanently re-authorize the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act to give parks long-term assurance of their royalty authority.

Second, the National Park Service should eliminate agency rules that tie the hands of local managers when it comes to spending fee income. Local employees have the best knowledge and context about their recreation site priorities and empowering them to take action promotes accountability because it is clear who is responsible for spending decisions.

Third, the agency should encourage innovation. A surcharge on foreign visitors – common practice in national parks from Tanzania to Chile to Thailand – is a no-brainer to explore. Beyond that, varying pricing experiences – whether differentiated by vehicle or person, day or week, state or county, or otherwise – could provide useful information and help generate more resources. to improve parks.

Many national parks have been charging fees for over a century. The car fee to enter Yellowstone in 1915 was $ 10 – the equivalent of about $ 270 today. No one is proposing to increase the fees so high. But fine-tuning the fee system could provide more resources to manage national parks now and for generations to come.

Tate Watkins is a researcher at PERC, the Real Estate and Environment Research Center, a non-profit organization in Bozeman, MT dedicated to improving the quality of the environment through property rights and markets.


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