Park Fees Should Benefit Park Visitors

Congress Needs to Act Soon So National Parks Can Keep the Fees They Collect

Passengers board the free shuttle at the Zion National Park visitor center.

Passengers board the free shuttle at the Zion National Park visitor center. National Park Service photo.

Have you ever marveled at the pink and red sandstone cliffs at Zion National Park while learning about the area’s rich history from the seat of one of the park’s free shuttle buses? Or enjoyed a visit to a working quarry to watch paleontologists preserving fossils at Badlands National Park?

What you might not know is that the entrance and recreation fees you pay when you visit national parks make these experiences possible. Fees provide a significant source of funding for visitor programs and services in our national parks, including nearly $180 million in 2012 alone.

This wasn’t always the case. Prior to 1997, money collected at national parks and other federal lands was deposited in the U.S. Treasury with no guarantee it would benefit the places that collected it. However, Congress has since passed laws mandating that these fees enhance visitor experiences. Current fees maintain and improve facilities, restore wildlife habitat, offer educational materials and services, and provide transportation at national parks and other federal land agencies.

Fewer than half of the 401 national park sites charge entrance or recreation fees. Those that do retain 80% of the money they collect for the explicit purpose of improving visitor experiences at that national park, and the remaining 20% is distributed to parks that collect little or no fees at all. In a few cases, parks that collect less money can keep 100% of the fees they collect.

In addition to shuttle buses at Zion and educational programs at Badlands, fee money has helped fund enhanced audio and visual features at visitor centers at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Fees at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site paid for a new 440-foot walkway that provides a safe, accessible trail to the presidential grave site. And fees at North Cascades National Park allow ongoing trail maintenance by the Urban Wilderness Project, a program for underserved youth in the Seattle area.

The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act makes all of these programs possible—and it is set to expire in December 2015. This may seem like a long time from now, but if the law is not reauthorized by December 2014, national parks and other public lands will be unable to sell visitors annual passes since they would not be valid after the law expires. This means parks could lose an important source of revenue in just a few months if Congress doesn’t act soon.

Worse, if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the law, the overall financial loss to the National Park Service would be equivalent to the damaging across-the-board budget cuts caused by the federal sequester in the spring of 2013. While national parks would remain open and park rangers in place, visitor experiences could suffer from less maintenance and fewer educational resources.

Fortunately, lawmakers will have an opportunity to renew this law as part of a budget bill it needs to pass before October 1st. NPCA and its partners are working hard to educate members of Congress about the importance of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to our national parks and the visitors who love them.

The next time you visit a national park and pay a fee, know that your dollars help provide your family and other visitors with safe and unforgettable experiences.

About the Author

Budget and Appropriations Specialist Emily Douce

Emily Douce is budget and appropriations specialist at NPCA