Editorial: Wrong path on national park fees

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Congress must not let the Trump administration price the public out of its parks. New Hampshire’s congressional delegation should join the fight to prevent the massive admission fee increases proposed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Trump appointee who oversees the National Park Service.

“There is nothing so American as our national parks,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said. They are indeed spectacular. They are also crowded and in need of $12 billion worth of maintenance and repairs. To thin the crowds and make a small dent in the maintenance backlog, Zinke wants to raise entrance fees to the 17 most popular parks – Maine’s Acadia National Park being the closest one to New Hampshire – during the five most popular months of the year.

The proposed increases are nothing to sneeze at: from $25 to $70 for a vehicle, from $10 to $30 for pedestrians and cyclists, and from $20 to $50 for motorcycles. Though that may not be a big percentage of the overall cost, counting travel and lodging, of a visit to a national park, it may be enough to deter low- and even middle-income Americans from seeing natural wonders that belong to them. To see the parks and learn their history, watch The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a 2009 documentary by New Hampshire filmmaker Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan.

Zinke’s proposed fee increases won’t do all that much to aid the park service. Onerous as they would be for some, they would raise only $70 million per year. Compare that to Trump’s budget, which calls for cutting the park service budget by 12 percent or $1.5 billion.

Trump and Zinke also want to eliminate the tax on estates that exceed $5.49 million for individuals or just short of $11 million for couples. At the current 40 percent rate for sums above the exempt amounts, eliminating the estate tax would save the mega-rich, people like Bill and Melinda Gates enough to repair all the nation’s parks several times over.

There is a better way. Sens. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, introduced a bill last spring that calls for allocating $500 million per year to park maintenance with the money coming from the government’s oil and gas revenues. The public owns the oil and gas and it owns the parks. It’s a natural fit, one Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan should support.

The extra money would preserve the parks but it wouldn’t solve the problem of crowding and long waiting times. Peak or congestion pricing might cut crowds a bit, but it’s fundamentally undemocratic because higher prices are irrelevant for people of means and prohibitive for people with thin wallets. The solution, annoying as it would be, is to go to a reservation system, perhaps one that includes a lottery component, during periods of peak usage. America’s national parks should not become the preserves of the well-off.

The National Park Service is accepting public comments on the proposed fee increases until Nov. 23. To tell them what you think, go to st.news/parkfees.