BUSINESS WEEK ONLINE COMMENTARY
September 1, 1997


Commentary by Howard Gleckman


WHAT AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKS NEED: HIGHER FEES

Visit a national park over Labor Day weekend? You didn't pay enough to get in. That's right. Admission should cost more.

This past summer, the Park Service doubled its admission fees at some facilities. But, even with the modest price hikes, it cost a carload of nature lovers about 10 bucks for a week-long pass to an American park. That's about 36 cents per day for each person in a family of four. And stays at many parks are still free, as are visits to wilderness areas or national forests.

Trouble is, visitors are increasingly getting what they pay for. The parks are plagued by deteriorating trails and facilities. Crime and vandalism are on the rise. Traffic jams on car-choked roads are more reminiscent of an L.A. freeway than of a pristine wilderness. And with fiscal pressures threatening to squeeze budgets even more, the parks badly need to both raise revenues and rationalize their costs. The best way to do that is to boost fees and allow the parks to keep the money they generate.

The Political Economy Research Center of Bozeman (Mont.) recently compared income statements of two parks in southwestern South Dakota -- Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. The parks share a boundary and much the same ecosystem. But their financials are as different as can be.

Though Wind Cave had over a million visitors in 1995, it charged no entrance fee. Thus, it generated a mere $389,000 in revenues, mostly from ranger-guided cave tours and a $10-per-night campground fee. The 28,000-acre park had an operating budget of just over $1 million and could afford few visitor services.

By contrast, its neighboring state park generated more than $3.6 million in revenues, including $2.5 million in fees from 1.6 million visitors. That more than supported an operating budget in excess of $3 million. In turn, that allowed the park to offer a much wider range of services, from pack trips to restaurants.

The strongest argument against raising fees is that the parks are part of the nation's common heritage and should be free to all. In a perfect world, that may be true. But the reality is that park budgets are already insufficient and will be squeezed further in coming years. In the current environment, "free" simply isn't in the cards.

Some critics claim that raising fees is an elitist trap, effectively barring low-income visitors from these spectacular natural sites. But there is little evidence that modest price hikes will drive anyone away. Indeed, Park Service officials say that this summer they saw some of their biggest attendance increases -- at parks that had doubled fees. Truth is, the fees could probably be doubled again -- especially for multiple-day stays -- and no-one would flinch.

In an era when it costs $7.50 to go to a movie. Or $20 to see a Major League Baseball game, it is downright silly to keep park admission fees artificially low. Environmentalists are absolutely right when they argue that ranchers and loggers should pay market rates for their use of public lands. But so should hikers, swimmers, and mountain-bikers. The nation's wild areas are a magnificant piece of America's heritage. Paying for the privilege of visiting them isn't too much to ask.

Gleckman, a senior writer in Washington, frequently writes commentaries for Business Week Online

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