When the National Park Service was created 101 years ago, no one then could have imagined that over 330 million people would visit the 417 federally managed national park facilities around the country in a single year — more people than are citizens of our country.
Yet, that is what happened last year in America. It is a visitation record, 7 percent higher than the previous record, which proves we are loving our parks. To death.
Overcrowding, diminishing visitor experiences and abused infrastructure are but a few of the obvious signs that we really do love our parks. And for 17 of the most visited national parks, including our Acadia, the crowds are overwhelming the Park Service’s ability to effectively manage the property and its often fragile sub-environments.
Claiming an $11-billion backlog of maintenance projects — about one-third of which are deemed critical — the National Park Service is proposing “surge entrance fee” hikes at the 17 busiest national parks during the peak months of each park’s visitor season. Access fees for automobiles, motorcycles, even pedestrians and bicyclists would all increase — sometimes more than double — by the outlined plan to raise an additional $70 million annually to help defray maintenance costs.
With 80 percent of entrance fees returned to the visiting park where paid, this new money is a necessity for the peak attendance parks. The remaining 20 percent is shared with other NPS facilities — many of which still charge no entrance fees.
While that last fact may gall critics of the NPS’s plan, and others can still remember when Acadia National Park had no entrance fees, it would be well to recall the economic engine that parks such as Acadia are to the local communities. Are local restaurants and hotels less expensive than they were in 1994 — the last time there was a fee hike in many parks? Is a visit to Disney World or Six Flags cheaper than it was in 1994? Are their crowds diminished by their increased entrance fees?
Consumers have options. An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80 and gains you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, historic sites, battlefields and wildlife reserves. And while the senior national park pass (for visitors over 62) recently increased from as little as $10 a day to $80, that is a lifetime pass. Seniors on a budget can still opt for a $20 annual senior pass for unlimited access to all national parks, while all U.S. military personnel can obtain free America the Beautiful Passes.
No one wants to pay more to visit Acadia, Zion or Yellowstone National Park. Yet we must all be cognizant of the costs to maintain access to these national treasures. Perhaps the proposed fee hikes seem onerous because of the locations and the amount of the increase, but anything this good is worth paying for. We doubt that visitors from away will shy from coming to Acadia because a week in the park will now cost $10 a day.