Prepare for sticker shock at your next National Park visit

The National Park Service is raising entry fees for 100 parks on Thursday to generate money for crumbling trails, roads, and buildings.

Felicia Fonseca/AP/File
Visitors gather at an outlook on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona in August 2015. The Grand Canyon and other big national parks are seeing more visitors than usual this year, partly driven by good weather, cheap gas, and effective marketing campaigns.

Your hiking trips will get more expensive starting today, as the National Park Service is raising entry fees for 100 parks, in some cases doubling or tripling them.

Pass price hikes affect in Yosemite in California (single vehicle entry jumps from $20 to $30), Rocky Mountain in Colorado (annual pass rises from $40 to $60), the Everglades in Florida (annual pass increases from $25 to $40).

Why will communing with nature cost a little more from now on?

Because the National Park Service is $11.5 billion short of the money it needs to repair trails, bridges, and buildings for the 293 million people who visit the parks, says National Parks director Jonathan Jarvis.

"We cannot greet them with rundown facilities," he told the Associated Press.

Entry fees are rising at about a third of the country’s 407 national parks, historic sites, and monuments. The rest will remain free to enter.

Fees for camping, showering, paddleboating, and cave tours at 176 parks will also rise, reports the Washington Post.

Most parks have not seen entry fee hikes since 2008 and some not since 2006. Fee increases were banned during the recession, reports the Post, to keep prices low and attract visitors.

But the agency’s maintenance needs have been growing for years, with no relief garnered from Congress, only cuts that have pinched operating and capital budgets.

"Unfortunately, over the last several years, Congress has not put the money towards getting these parks ready for the next century of service to the American people," said Emily Douce, with the advocacy organization National Parks Conservation Association, during an interview with NPR.

Mr. Jarvis lifted the ban last year, allowing park superintendents last fall to begin collecting input from the public about the fee changes.

"Most of the feedback was, 'We understand,' and people were not up in arms about it," Kathy Kupper, a Park Service spokeswoman, told the Post.

However, there was concern among some members of Congress and the public that the parks remain affordable for all Americans.

"I am all for this," wrote Jeanne Rife from Cleveland, on Yosemite’s Facebook page last year in response to news of a proposed rate hike. "Though I wish there were some way to allow welfare folks to get in for less/free. Don't want to make access only for those who can afford it," she wrote.

The Obama administration has stepped in to help the parks out, introducing legislation last month called the National Park Service Centennial Act in honor of the 100th anniversary of the national parks program next year. It proposes to raise the price of the $10 lifetime pass for senior citizens, establish an endowment to handle private donations, and hand out additional public funding for construction and education programs.

The extra money would be a much needed financial boon. On Wednesday, a program that has supported hundreds of parks around the country for 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, expired. It uses revenues from oil and gas drilling to fund water and natural resources conservation, national parks like Gettysburg and Yosemite, state parks and historic sites, and popular recreational resources like the Appalachian Trail.

Though Congress was authorized to appropriate $900 million a year to the fund, it more often paid out $100 to $200 million per year, said Adam Sarvana, spokesman for the Democrats on the US House Committee on Natural Resources, in an interview with the Monitor. That leaves some $20 billion, accrued over the years, still owed to the park conservation program. 

"It’s not like the money is actually sitting in a bank," Mr. Sarvana added in an e-mail. "It’s all on some bean-counter’s spreadsheet somewhere as an unappropriated balance." And without new oil and gas money coming in, Sarvana says, Congress "will now feel less pressure than ever to appropriate a dime to LWCF."

Lacking sufficient Congressional funding, support for park infrastructure inevitably shifts to park patrons – and not everyone is happy about that. 

"The parks are for the people," wrote Curtis Beveridge of Spokane, Wash., on Yosemite's Facebook page. "Initially access to parks was free. Now many of the people can't afford to go to parks."

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