In effort to hike fees at national parks, Zinke blames free visits

Veterans, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and children are entitled to get in free.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this week claimed that too many Americans access national parks free of charge, which isn’t helping in the effort to shrink a $11.7 billion maintenance backlog.

On Tuesday, Zinke in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee pitched his idea of drastically raising fees at 17 popular parks, a proposal that he has already introduced and one that the National Parks Service already suggested last October.

Currently, veterans, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and children are entitled to get into national parks for free. As part of an NPS initiative, fourth-graders also can get in for free.

“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 Tuesday. “We’re looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves.”

Zinke also said he wants each park to have more discretion on how to use the funds.

The NPS at the end of last year suggested raising the cost from $25 to $70 per car ($50 for motorcycles and $30 per person on foot or bike). Under Zinke’s proposal, entrance fees at the Grand Canyon and other parks could jump from $30 to $70 per vehicle during the busiest months, and $25 to $70 at some of the other parks.

The increase in revenue—an estimated $70 million per year—could go toward updating and repairing aging infrastructure in numerous national parks, including the Grand Canyon.

At the beginning of March, Zinke backed a bill to restore​ the parks using up to $18 billion in revenue from energy produced on federal lands and waters.

A poll commissioned by the Outdoor Alliance For Kids found that nearly two-thirds of 1,000 Americans surveyed are less likely to visit a national park if the admission cost does in fact increase. A SNEWS poll returned similar results.

The NPS reported that in 2016, 331 million park visitors spent an estimated $18.4 billion while visiting lands across the country, supporting jobs, labor income, and overall economic output. The spending was the highest in history.