Beware: national park entry fees could double in 2018

With Yosemite Falls visible in the distance, a visitor wades in water along the Swinging Bridge Trail at Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 30, 2017.
With Yosemite Falls visible in the distance, a visitor wades in water along the Swinging Bridge Trail at Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 30, 2017. –Preston Gannaway/ New York Times

Fees at 17 popular national parks may soon be rising sharply. On Oct. 24, the National Park Service announced a proposal to begin charging higher peak-season fees for five months per year at some of the country’s most beloved parks, including Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone and Joshua Tree National Park.

The park service said that the increase in funds would be used to address maintenance issues that affect the visitor experience, such as roads, campgrounds and bathrooms.

Under the proposal, entry fees at 17 parks during the peak season in 2018 would increase to $70 for noncommercial vehicles, $50 for motorcycles, and $30 for pedestrians and cyclists. By comparison, in 2017 the entrance fees at Grand Canyon National Park are: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 for visitors on foot or bike. An increase in fees is also proposed for commercial tour operators, while the cost of the annual pass, with access to all national parks, would remain at $80.

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The proposed hike in peak season fees is similar to surge pricing, popularized by Uber, when high demand results in higher prices. The increased fees would begin as soon as Jan. 1 for Joshua Tree National Park; May 1 for 12 parks, including Glacier National Park and Olympic National Park; and June 1 for four parks, including Acadia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The 17 parks included in the peak season proposal “are the top revenue parks,” according to the National Park Service. In a document released by the park service detailing the fee increases, it is noted that these parks “collect 70 percent of the total of all entrance fees throughout the country.” Out of the 417 sites run by the park service, 118 charge entry fees (the majority offer free entry). Funds from fee-charging parks support others with free entry; according to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, “80 percent of an entrance fee remains in the park where it is collected. The other 20 percent is spent on projects in other national parks.”

Recreational visits to national parks have risen steadily in recent years. The park service reported more than 330 million visits in 2016 — in 2000, the number was 286 million visits. An increase in visitors and aging infrastructure both contributed to a backlog of maintenance projects in the parks. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement, “The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration.” The park service said that the proposed peak season fees would increase revenue by $70 million, a 34 percent increase. Yet while it is generally agreed that national park infrastructure needs maintenance, it is not agreed where those funds should originate.

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In reaction to the proposal, Theresa Pierno, the chief executive of the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association, spoke out in a statement on the group’s website. “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places — protected for all Americans to experience — unaffordable for some families to visit,” she said. “The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.”

The National Park Service is open to comments from the public regarding the peak season fees proposal via their website, through Nov. 23.

An increase in fees at national parks has been a recent trend. In August 2017, the cost of a lifetime senior pass was raised to $80 from $10 (the cost had been $10 since 1994). In January 2017, entry fees at Joshua Tree National Park were raised to $25 per vehicle from $20.

Outside of the peak season fees, individual national parks have released proposals for increased entry fees in 2018. Proposals for modest increases include Great Falls in Maryland and Virginia, to $15 from $10 per vehicle. Other parks announced new rates starting in 2018, including Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the cost of entry for a private vehicle is being raised to $20 from $15.

Price increases aren’t limited to entry fees. In January 2017, fees for group picnic areas in Washington, D.C.-area national parks rose significantly. At Fort Dupont Park in Washington, fees increased to $65 from $45 for a half-day group picnic site. In Fort Washington Park in Maryland, group picnic area rates increased to $75 per day from $25.

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The cost of camping is also expected to rise. A proposal from Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas includes an increase to $15 from $8 per night for camping in a tent or RV. A similar proposal from Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri would increase the nightly cost of backcountry campsites to $10 from $5, and the cost of cave tours to $10 from $5. A proposal from the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah would increase camping fees to $15 from $10 during from March 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

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