No matter how you measure it, national parks are a recreational bargain. Sure, it costs money to drive or fly to them, and more to stay overnight once you're there. But all destination attractions have costs associated with their enjoyment. The price of admission is but one part of the overall cost of a visit, and in the case of the national parks, it's a minor one.
Which is why it's perplexing to see such an outcry over news that the Park Service wants to raise entrance fees at 135 sites over the next two years. Since superintendents at the affected parks began notifying their neighbors earlier this year about the planned increases - a task apparently handed them by administrators in Washington, who never made a formal announcement of the proposal - critics have condemned the plan for a number of reasons.
Their principal arguments are economic: Tourism-dependent communities fret that higher fees will reduce visitation and cut into profits, while others argue that the increases will keep out those of limited financial means.
It's true, in theory at least, that raising the price of something should decrease demand for it. And those who claim fee increases will keep people away from parks point to data they believe support their assertion: National park visitation has declined since Congress authorized a round of price increases in 1996 under the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program.
National park use peaked in 1999 at 287.1 million visits. It than began a fairly steady decline, totaling 272.6 million in 2006. That 5 percent decline came during a time when the U.S. population increased by 6 percent. But it's simplistic to conclude from the data that higher prices alone are keeping people away from the parks. Other factors must be at work. For one thing, park system visitation rose in the first two years after the Fee Demo law was passed. And in a 2002 report to Congress on the program, federal land-management agencies found no significant difference in visitation trends between Fee Demo sites and locations where fees had remained unchanged. It's equally telling that visitor counts at Great Smoky Mountains, the most heavily used national park, also dropped from 1999 to 2006. But higher entrance fees can't be the reason, because Great Smoky Mountains charges no entry fee.
The argument that fee increases will prevent working-class families of limited income from enjoying public lands also is unpersuasive, for it ignores the broader economic context in which those fees are imposed. For example, the current Park Service proposal is to raise the $20 Yosemite entrance fee to $25 in 2008. Other popular parks in the West would see similar increases: From $20 to $25 at Zion, $10 to $20 at Arches and Canyonlands. In strict percentage terms, those are pretty big boosts, and business interests in nearby towns have voiced loud opposition. But according to the AAA's fuel-cost calculator, a round-trip drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite in a two-year-old domestic minivan will eat up $124.56 worth of gasoline. A $5 increase on top of that is unlikely to be the deciding factor when a family considers whether to plan a Yosemite vacation.
There are probably many factors contributing to the nationwide drop in park visitation: overcrowding at popular sites, an aging American population, and competing opportunities - what researchers have dubbed the "nature vs. Nintendo" effect.
The trend is troubling in that it could signal a weakening of the personal connection and commitment Americans have to the great treasures of our natural, historical and cultural heritage. On the other hand, it's absurd to expect a finite amount of parkland to accommodate a continually increasing number of people. Anyone who has driven into Yosemite Valley on a holiday weekend is unlikely to regard a drop in park visitation as entirely a bad thing.
Slightly higher user fees are unlikely to have much effect on park use, but they could have a significant effect on the quality of the park experience. Most of that money will stay at individual parks, where it can be spent on upkeep and repairs - the sort of unglamorous expenditures that typically get shortchanged in the politically driven federal budget process. Smaller crowds and plumbing that works - what's not to like?
John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). He is a columnist for the Ventura County Star in California.