According to testimony this week from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, many Americans can expect to start paying more to enter national parks.
As The Hill reported, Zinke expounded on a general policy addressed in a proposal his agency released last year. That plan called for a hike in the entrance fees during peak season for 17 national parks.
Speaking to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, he shared his view that the current system allows for far too many free admissions.
Individuals receive discounted or free admission for a number of reasons, including military service and disabilities. While Zinke said he would not raise fees on these two groups, his plan would scale back discounts while increasing the cost to those paying full price.
“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,” he said.
The current proposal favors more than doubling the entry fee for some of America’s most visited parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, from a current rate of between $25 to $30 per carload to a flat $70 fee.
Zinke noted that the department is also considering charging a per-person entry fee. He is also open to reconsidering how parks honor annual passes.
“Basically, one person with a pass, everyone in that car comes in free,” he said. “Now, whether or not that’s correct, we’re looking at it.”
The bottom line, he said, is maximizing revenue to address billions of dollars in needed infrastructure repair and upkeep inside the nation’s parks.
Critics, however, warn that a steep increase in fees could have the opposite effect of discouraging Americans from visiting national parks. A poll commissioned several months ago by the Outdoor Alliance for Kids has provided fuel for that argument.
Nearly two in three respondents told pollsters they would be less likely to visit a national park with the fee hikes in place.
Jackie Ostfeld, who founded the group behind the poll, said the proposed fee increases would “reverse years of progress at the National Park Service to make our parks more inclusive and welcoming to kids and families of all backgrounds.”
In his testimony Tuesday, however, Zinke continued to defend his proposal, insisting that some of the nation’s “principal parks are loved to death” and in desperate need of improvement.
He made a similar argument last year amid news of his proposed fee increases.
“Now, I face an $11.5 billion backlog of our public lands and our parks,” Zinke said. “And our parks are being loved to death. Everyone loves our parks.”
The retired U.S. Navy SEAL said his military service taught him that there are “two things we need to fund absolutely: our military and our parks.”
Referring to the current $80 annual passes available to park visitors as “the greatest bargain in America” during his testimony this week, Zinke has previously chided those who bristle at paying the fee.
“If you think that $80, all year, every park, all the time, by a carload, is too much to ask — I mean come on,” he said last year.
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