The Great American Outdoors Act is well-intentioned, with its goal of addressing the nearly $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog of our nation’s public lands.
But the bill, which the Senate will vote on soon, would also add to the federal debt and empower the executive branch to acquire more federal land with limited accountability.
Recognizing some of the bill’s flaws, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., offered an amendment that would, in his words, “fix future problems without having to put the cost on the nation’s credit card.”
Enzi’s pragmatic approach centers on adjusting park entrance fees.
To understand why adjusting fees are necessary, it’s imperative first to understand the deferred maintenance problem.
The national parks have both cyclical and deferred maintenance. Cyclical maintenance is routine, regularly scheduled maintenance, while deferred maintenance refers to “maintenance and repairs that were not performed when they should have been or were scheduled to be and which are put off or delayed for a future period.”
Roughly $12 billion of the nearly $20 billion deferred maintenance backlog is within the National Park System. More than half the deferred backlog concerns roadways, bridges, tunnels, and parking lots. Buildings account for $2.2 billion, and the deferred maintenance for water and wastewater systems is $717 million.
Very old infrastructure and growing visitation at park sites around the country explain why the backlog exists. Deferred maintenance adversely affects the visitor experience and also creates environmental liabilities as wastewater leaks have polluted streams in the parks.
To raise revenue to address the backlog, Enzi’s amendment would modestly increase park entrance fees by $5 and charge international visitors more by increasing the tourist B-1/B-2 visa fees and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization fee.
America’s national parks have been a hot spot for international tourists. In 2015, 13.6 million overseas travelers visited America’s national parks. They contribute to the costs of using a national park, but do not pay taxes for their upkeep. Charging higher entrance fees for international travelers is routine practice in many other countries. Rather than increasing visa fees, an alternative approach could charge foreign tourists more at the gate.
Setting park entrance fees at market rates for domestic tourists is another pragmatic approach.
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act authorizes the National Park Service (and other agencies) to collect fees and retain 80% of the revenue without additional appropriations.
Parks charge entrance fees and fees for other activities, such as the use of a campsite. Only 111 of the 419 park units charge an entrance fee.
By comparison to other family activities, entry to the most popular parks is very inexpensive. A seven-day vehicle pass for Yellowstone is $35. For a family of four, that’s less than $9 per person. That’ll get you two bottles of water at Disney World.
As specified by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, “The amount of the recreation fee shall be commensurate with the benefits and services provided to the visitor.”
Park managers should set prices that better reflect consumers’ value of their parks and their willingness to pay. Setting more competitive prices for park entrances would generate more revenue, and park directors would have the flexibility and discretion to use those funds to best meet the needs of the park.
Prices could provide a useful tool to manage overcrowding and other stressors on infrastructure. If concerns arise that higher prices would price low-income families out of visiting the national parks, the parks could provide vouchers for certain income thresholds.
Policymakers should make it easier for parks to adjust fees as necessary.
“America’s national parks are something to be proud of and protect,” Enzi said. “We owe it to the parks—and to the citizens and foreign visitors who partake in their wonders—to keep them in good working order.”
Adjusting entrance fees is a commonsense measure to do just that.