Forget Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the best bargains in America are found at national parks. For modest entrance fees, Americans can spend hours or days experiencing some of the world’s most impressive sights.
But that likely will change.
Five years ago, you could load your family into an SUV and drive into Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain National Park or scores of other national parks for $25 or less.
A couple of years ago, fees increased by $10 to $20 at many national parks. Now, President Donald Trump wants to more than double those higher prices. At the nation’s 17 most popular parks, admission will be $70.
The Trump administration says increases are necessary to pay for a huge backlog of repair projects.
However, Trump plans to cut the national park budget by $296.6 million. And he wants to cut the number of park staff by more than 1,200, according to a report by National Public Radio.
Those reductions undercut claims from Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that revenue generated by fee hikes will go toward needed repairs. The proposed fee hikes would raise about $70 million, which won’t offset even a quarter of the planned budget cuts.
What the enormous increases signal is a move toward making national parks pay for themselves through user fees – meaning marketing and business plans will focus on getting more money from wealthy tourists, while squeezing out middle and low-income Americans.
It’s true that there are amusement parks and resorts that are more expensive than national parks. Many people spend more than $70 to get into, for example, Disney World or to go skiing.
But Disney World and ski resorts are not public parks. They were not established by acts of Congress to preserve them from development. They do not, by law, operate for the benefit of all Americans.
“Americans already own these parks, and they shouldn’t have to empty their wallets to enjoy them,” Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, told the Flathead Beacon. “Glacier and Yellowstone should be accessible to all of us. This decision will price Montana families out of our public lands, and hurt local economies, which thrive thanks to our national parks.”
Because the proposed increases come atop fee hikes made the past few years, arguments that park fees have not kept pace with inflation are inaccurate.
And as it has raised fees, the park service also has further limited access, saying more restrictions on vehicular access and other regulations are needed to manage the growing number of visitors and protect natural resources.
Officials are even proposing mandated reservations at parks such as Arches and Zion, both in Utah.
Costs also have been going up for lodging within national parks. Increasingly, renovations at hotels, cabins and other facilities have been used to justify higher rates.
As more Americans demand air conditioning, TV, cell service, wifi and upscale amenities, businesses that contract with the park service are meeting the demand – at higher and higher prices.
Contracts with the park service typically require concessionaires to offer a variety of price points to accommodate a variety of income levels. But if the government’s priority is to generate more revenue, Americans can expect contractors to market to the wealthy, with the government’s blessings.
As a business plan, it’s solid. The parks and the businesses within them could keep raising prices: for admission, for reservations, for transportation within the park, for guided hikes and tours, for lodging, for meals and so on.
National parks are so popular with Americans and foreign tourists that they need not worry about pricing themselves out of business. The rich will continue to flock to Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the other wonders that our nation has preserved.
As so many have pointed out, lots of resorts and amusement parks charge more than $100 entry fees.
Is that we want our parks to be? Resorts for wealthy Americans and rich international tourists?
Our national parks should remain accessible to virtually all Americans. They should not be turned into publicly owned playgrounds for the rich.
Visiting a national park isn’t comparable to visiting Disney World.
At least, it shouldn’t be.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.