The Most Visited National Parks Could Be Self Sufficient with Fees of Less Than $12 a Day

by Shawn Regan

Visitors to national parks got into the parks for free this weekend, the first of 17 days in 2011 the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees.

While it’s hard to complain about what seems like a free lunch, the NPS can ill afford such freebies.  Its backlog in deferred maintenance projects lies at $9 billion. And in 2008, for every dollar the NPS spent, it got back only 16 cents.

Each fee-free day costs the agency between $750,000 and $1 million in foregone revenues, amounting to $12-$17 million for the free dates in 2011. This is a mere drop in the bucket when compared with the colossal backlog, but it begs a question: what should be done about the Park Service’s fees and budget?

The graph above (provided by Holly Fretwell via Environmental Trends) shows the daily fee that would be required to make the most visited parks operationally self sufficient. Each of the 35 parks listed receives over 2 million visitors per year. With daily per-person fees between $0.17 and $11.36, these parks could cover their entire operating budget.

Even the most expensive daily fee, $11.36 for Yellowstone National Park, would cost less than the average price of popcorn and a movie ticket.

But Yellowstone is a bit of an outlier. The average cost to visit one of 35 most popular parks would be a paltry $3.13. Even Yosemite, the second most expensive, would cost only $8.30 per day.

To be sure, under this hypothetical pricing scheme many parks would see their fees rise on a per-day basis. Most parks do not provide daily fee options. For instance, a typical pass to Yellowstone is valid for one week and costs $25.

But the more parks rely on Congress — not their visitors — for funding, the more decisions become based on their political, rather than conservation, merit. Consider the early history of Yellowstone. Stephen Mather, the first director the Park Service, intended for the parks to be financially self sufficient. As Fretwell writes:

The receipts from these fees were held in a special account, accessible to the Park Service without congressional appropriation for road maintenance, park development, and administration. Mather considered agency control of the funds important for responsible management.

Just two years after the creation of the Park Service, however, Congress ordered all park receipts to go to the national treasury. Since then, politics has played a large role in Park Service operations, from budgets to entrance fees. Only recently has that begun to change, but the grip of politics is still firmly embedded.

As the graph above illustrates, making steps towards more park autonomy in decision making and funding may not be too painful and is surely worth considering.