Increasing national park fees hurts our understanding of the environment

As 2018 begins, Americans typically find themselves going through the motions of a new year: making resolutions, starting gym memberships, and buying calendars. Some will also start planning upcoming vacations, and many plans will include national parks, which receive more than 300 million visits annually.

The U.S. National Park System, a largely protected system of 59 sites throughout the country, is an exceptional example of the nation’s commitment to preserving natural spaces for the enjoyment of hikers, campers and other recreationalists.

The National Park System contributes approximately $30 billion dollars annually to the U.S. economy, supports almost 300,000 jobs, and absorbs almost 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, which itself has an estimated economic value of almost $600 million.

The parks are also home to hundreds of threatened and endangered species and vulnerable habitats, and support many conservation efforts and research projects. However, despite the clear economic and environmental value of the National Park System, its very existence is threatened.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently proposed increasing the peak season week long entrance fees at 17 of the most popular parks maintained by the National Park Service. In many cases the proposed increase almost triples the original single private vehicle fee.

This increase is proposed on the heels of a recent 700 percent increase in the price of a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass and reductions of upwards of 80 percent in the size of several parks. The proposal will very likely result in a reduction in visitation at the affected parks, especially by minorities and low-income individuals.

The visitation reduction is troubling for many reasons. It is widely accepted by health organizations that access to parks and other green spaces are good for human health. Less commonly discussed is the relationship between national park attendance and environmental attitude. Studies have found that individuals who visit parks are more likely to have a higher desire to support environmental resilience and a more refined understanding of environmental principles.

Although it is likely that individuals who are more interested in the environment are more likely to attend parks, it cannot be overlooked that parks provides perspective, information and setting to attendees, likely enhancing knowledge of environmental facts and desire for higher quality of natural spaces.

In today’s political and social climate — where environmental needs are often subservient to industry desires, where climate change is resulting in worldwide degradation to important habitats, where scientific knowledge is curiously absent in environmental decision making — a knowledgeable and interested public is of high importance.

Increasing national park entrance fees might limit the ability of the public to interact with and learn from natural areas, subsequently reducing the public’s ability to take part in policy making that can have permanent effects on our most treasured landscapes.

The proposed entrance fee increases are expected to raise funds (approximately $70 million per year) that will address longstanding maintenance and infrastructure needs across parks. However, this relatively small fee could easily be collected as a tax from the vast industrial exploitation (e.g. drilling and mining) of national parks that Zinke has voted for in the past, as well as recommends for the future.

The administration could also consider not slashing the budget of the National Park Service (the organization charged with managing the parks) by $200 million.

Alternatively, taxes could be raised on individuals to garner funds. A 2016 study conducted by Colorado State University and the Harvard Kennedy School noted that 81 percent of surveyed citizens were willing to pay higher federal taxes to ensure that the park system was protected and preserved.

The history of national parks is one of preservation for the enjoyment of future generations. Increasing entrance fees ultimately goes against this mission by inhibiting park attendance, which could erode the ability of the public to cultivate an interest in and appreciation for the environment.

Elise Gornish, Ph.D., is a restoration ecologist who focuses her research and outreach program on arid land vegetation management at the University of Arizona. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @RestoreCAL.

Tags Elise Gornish National Park Service national parks Ryan Zinke Ryan Zinke
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