by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

The Trump administration has announced that it is considering big increases in entrance fees for 17 of the most popular national parks during their peak season. I’m getting lots of emails from conservation groups opposing that.

But our national parks are desperately underfunded and have been for decades. Their natural systems are rapidly degrading, partly as a result of lack of funding for protection, restoration, and for science. In my new book Grand Canyon for Sale, I’ve made the case that park visitors, senior citizens like me included, should pay far more.

Whaaat? You love national parks and public lands and you agree with Trump and his allies, mostly minions of the oil, gas, coal and mining industries who couldn’t care less about the environment?

Not quite. It’s plain that the Trump plan is to charge those higher fees but also to continue drastic cuts of Congressional allocations for park budgets. There’s nothing there to be in favor of, and the threats to public lands will continue to mount.

In a rational political system, policy debates are useful — should we raise fees or not? In a government of chaos and pillage, that discussion is mooted. I’d advocate that instead of spinning our wheels opposing limited measures like new fees, we who love parks and public lands should turn our energies elsewhere.

Organize instead to replace those destructive forces in Congress and the White House. Why mount a campaign against a leaky faucet when the roof is on fire?

We need to remain hopeful, right?, or we cannot fight effectively. But hope isn’t just a mantra, to be chanted with beatific thoughts behind closed eyes. My favorite ecologist, David Orr, has written: “Hope is a verb, with its sleeves rolled up.”

When we return to a time of sane government and parks administration, these points about entrance fees will be worth your consideration:

  • An amazing 38 percent of visitors to Grand Canyon are foreign citizens. They are induced to come and spend money, en route, in Phoenix or Las Vegas or Tusayan. Everyone does well, except the destitute parks.
  • National park visitors put an estimated $15.7 billion into the cash registers of private businesses in local gateway regions, in just one recent year. The money directly supports nearly 174,000 jobs and a $5 billion private-business payroll.
  • At Grand Canyon, we fork over an absurd $30 per carload to be in the park for a full seven days. Tour bus operators only pay $8 per passenger. Helicopter air-tour companies are charged only twenty-five dollars per flyover, sometimes less, often nothing — no matter how many passengers are in the aircraft. Morethan one hundred thousand overflights carry nearly half a million passengers each year.
  • In Kenya, by contrast, each national park visitor pays per twenty-four-hour period, plus an issuing fee, plus a fee for a car, and the entry and exit are time-stamped. Ecuador’s Galápagos National Park costs a hundred dollars per person to enter, unless you’re Ecuadoran. Argentina’s national parks charge a per-person entry fee higher than what Grand Canyon charges per carload. One former superintendent told me that whenever he asks them, visitors say, “You ought to charge us more! We’re okay with that!”

Many national park units don’t charge an entry fee at all and some, for practical and legal reasons, can’t. But a reasonable fee increase at those that do would take in about $1.2 billion a year—at least a billion more than entrance fees total now. And in this happy scenario the usual annual congressional budget allocation would of course stay at current levels too.

Some fraction of that revenue could implement a rolling management plan for climate change on all public lands. “Every young person joining the Park Service now, their entire career will be consumed by climate change and responding to it,” according to Gary Machlis, the science adviser to the director of the national park system. “We need to train them and prepare them for those complexities. We have to take the time to do that.” And we have to pay the money.


Stephen Nash is the author of two award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington PostBioScienceArchaeology, and the New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond.

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