If approved, the price increase will disproportionately impact low-income families who already lack reasonable access to green spaces and likely stymie efforts to increase diversity in national parks.
We’re more than halfway through winter in the Northern Hemisphere and temperatures are starting to warm. Families across America are beginning to plan their spring break and summer vacations, but anyone hoping to take an educational trip to one of our nation’s historic parks might be in for a costly surprise.
Seventeen of the nation’s most popular national parks, including Shenandoah, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, may double admission costs during their five-month peak season beginning this year. Entry at these parks currently costs between $25 and $30 per vehicle year-round. Under the new pricing structure, entry would cost $70 per vehicle during a five-month peak season. Per-person entry fees, $10-$15 at the current rate, would rise to $30 during peak season.
In a statement, Trump appointee and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended the fee increases, saying it’s meant to address the park service’s over $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenances. What it fails to acknowledge is that these price increases wouldn’t even be necessary had the Trump administration not so severely slashed the agency’s 2018 budget, forcing them to pass the costs along to visitors.
It was in light of these changes that more than three-quarters of the bipartisan National Park System Advisory Board resigned, expressing frustration over Zinke’s refusal to seek their counsel or convene a single meeting since his appointment in December 2016. Board members consist of social and natural science academics as well as former elected officials and serve as unpaid volunteers. In recent years, they have advised Interior on climate change amongst other issues.
Resigning board member Belinda Faustinos, former executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, criticized the price hike, saying, “We’re trying to increase access to parks, so changing the entry fee for that is just crazy. I don’t understand the thinking there. Charging more for certain parks, it just makes that look frankly like an exclusive club that only people who have the money can go to.”
If approved, the price increase will disproportionately impact low-income families who already lack reasonable access to green spaces and likely stymie efforts to increase diversity in national parks. National Parks saw its highest attendance on record 97 in 2016, but according to the most recently available data, whites account for an overwhelming 78 percent of visitors. A poll administered by New American Media found “erroneous perceptions of the distance and cost of visiting” to be a significant barrier for POC visiting public lands. One can imagine how these price increases will only validate those perceptions and discourage visitation.
The budget cuts to NPS and the price increase for popular parks are two more examples of environmental racism waged against disenfranchised communities by the Trump administration. Perhaps not as deadly as the repeal of regulations protecting clean air and water, this price increase reveals a more insidious approach. It’s the same strategy Trump used when he decided to shrink the Bears Ear National Monument by 85 percent, a slap in the face to the Native American tribes who worked for decades to get the 1.35 million acres designated. In fact, it’s one of capitalism’s favorite tricks: sever our connection to land and resources in order to continue exploiting them with minimal pushback. After all, if we know and value these lands, we will fight to preserve them and the powers that be don’t want that.
Currently, the National Parks Service is reviewing the approximately 100 public comments it received late last year in response to the proposed price increases. The agency is expected to make a final decision about the fees sometime this month.
Regardless of what happens, we need not raise our white flags in surrender just yet. The price increase will only affect the 17 parks that drive the most revenue and of the 417 total NPS sites, only 118 charge for entry. There are still plenty of public lands you can still visit for free or you can visit one of the popular parks during the off-season to avoid the fees. If nothing else, these potential changes are a reminder to continue paying close attention to the Trump administration’s policies, even ones that at first glance seem small in scope. Had more of us been aware of these potential price increases, we could have flooded their inbox during the public comment period, but instead we are left waiting with fingers crossed.