Americans oppose Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s plan to raise entrance fees in our most iconic and awe-inspiring national parks. According to a new bipartisan poll released by the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our parks should remain open and available to those who want to visit them. Americans, across political parties, believe our parks should be funded federally and not through an entrance fee increase, which new evidence shows will likely have a dramatic impact on visitation.
In late October, the Administration announced the proposal to hike park entry rates. Visitors to places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and my personal stomping grounds, Shenandoah National Park, would see entrance fees more than double -- tripling in some places -- to $70 per vehicle during peak season.
The Administration argues that the fee increase will help pay for crumbling infrastructure in our parks. I think we can all agree that our parks need to be cared for and maintained, but this is not a serious plan to do so. The maintenance backlog in our national parks is $11.9 billion -- that’s billion, with a “b.” Earlier this year, President Trump and Secretary Zinke sent a proposal to Congress that would cut the park service budget by $322 million, the largest cut since World War II. Raising fees in our national parks, on the other hand, would generate less than $70 million, according to the Interior Department’s own estimates. Grade school math tells us it would take over 160 years to whittle down the maintenance needs in our parks at this rate.
Furthermore, new evidence demonstrates that 64% of Americans would be less likely to visit a national park if fees were increased. And that number spikes to 71% among Americans with household incomes under $30,000 per year. Raising fees will not only make our national parks less accessible to middle- and low-income families, it will negatively impact visitation across income levels. Seventy-eight percent of Americans also worry that the fee increase will harm local economies and small businesses in communities near the parks that depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Bottom line, fewer visitors means less revenue generation for park maintenance, the Administration’s stated purpose for raising fees in the first place.
While some days it seems like there is nothing but daylight between Republicans and Democrats, opposition to the fee hike presents an area of unity. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans -- 68% -- oppose the proposed fee increase, including majorities across all political and major demographic groups. When it comes to funding national parks, Americans overwhelmingly believe that increasing federal funding is a better approach than increasing entrance fees -- 72% versus 28%, respectively.
Reducing federal spending while raising entrance fees in our parks amounts to a regressive tax on American families. Whether we visit them or not, our national parks are national treasures, the envy of the world. They belong to all of us and it is our responsibility to pass our park legacy on to our children and future generations.
All children and youth should have opportunities and encouragement to experience nature. An overwhelming 92% of Americans agree that access to national parks provides kids with valuable opportunities to be active outdoors and learn about the natural world. Eighty-five percent of Americans agree that increasing the visitor fees at national parks would make it less likely that children and people from lower-income families would have a chance to visit the parks.
Already our children are spending less time outdoors than any generation in history, with profound consequences for their health and wellness. America’s kids are suffering from a childhood obesity crisis resulting in shorter life expectancies than their parents. Youth spend more than fifty hours a week on electronic media and just minutes a day playing outdoors. The situation is so dire that a national movement has emerged to reintroduce a new generation of kids to nature.
Historically, the Interior Department has championed opportunities for kids to experience America’s great outdoors. For example, leading up to the centennial of our national parks -- just last year -- the Find Your Park campaign and the Every Kid in a Park program were launched to connect the next generation with our parks.
Raising fees to the proposed rate of $70 per vehicle may price middle- and low-income families out of our parks and reverse important strides that the park service has made over the years to expand equity and access to nature for all. To add insult to injury, the park service also just announced it will scale back fee free days in national parks to just four days in 2018, plummeting from sixteen in 2016, and ten in 2017.
The American people want to see more opportunities, not less, for kids and families to experience nature. This proposed fee hike will do more harm than good no matter how you look at it, and the Administration should withdraw its proposal post-haste. Today is the last day to submit public comments to let Secretary Zinke know where you stand.