Zinke: Too many people enter national parks for free
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSanders tests his brand in Florida Overnight Energy: Court orders EPA to enforce chemical safety rule | Dem says Zinke would 'sell' his grandkids for the oil industry | EPA reportedly poised to unveil climate rule replacement Washington governor says Zinke would 'sell his grandchildren for the oil industry' MORE defended his plan to increase the entrance fees for national parks, saying they need to charge more because too many people get in for free, including military members and the disabled.

Zinke testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, saying he proposed raising entrance fees because too many visitors don't have to pay to enter. 

"When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there's not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door," Zinke said. "So, we're looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves."

Currently, active military members and those with permanent disabilities can receive a free annual pass, but Zinke assured the Senate committee that he would not impose new fees on them. 

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The National Park Service currently charges between $25 and $30 for a vehicle fee at the country’s busiest national parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion.

Zinke’s proposal would raise that fee to $70 per car. He is also looking at possibly charging each individual an entrance fee rather than paying per car.

"Basically, one person with a pass, everyone in that car comes in free," Zinke said. "Now, whether or not that's correct, we're looking at it."

Seniors used to be able to buy a lifetime pass for $10 but that price was raised to $80, the same cost as an annual pass for nonseniors.

Zinke called the $80 per year pass “the greatest bargain in America,” despite bipartisan pushback claiming it would hurt American families. 

Simply raising the park fees will not address the $11.7 billion national parks maintenance backlog, Zinke said. The infrastructure inside the parks needs renovation and restoration. 

“Some of our principal parks are loved to death,” Zinke said Tuesday. 

Zinke’s proposal, unveiled in October, would raise the rates during the five-month peak season at 17 national parks. 

A December poll found that nearly 68 percent of Americans were less likely to visit a national park if the fees increased. 

Zinke has a contentious relationship with the National Park Service, which led to nine of the 12 advisory board members giving their resignation in January over how he allegedly treated them. 

Miranda Green contributed to this report.