Fourth-graders can visit national parks for free. Will it lure kids outside?

Fourth-graders and their families will have free access to national parks, but critics say that waiving fees may have adverse effects.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
Visitors enjoy the view of the Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, August 19, 2012.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, all fourth-graders and their families will have free access to national parks and other federal lands, President Obama is expected to announce in Chicago on Thursday. The plan known as "Every Kid in a Park” will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service in 2016.

The new initiative is an attempt by the White House to get more kids away from the computer screen and into the great outdoors. The statement released by the White House announcing the initiative cited a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, which showed that young people devote an average of more than seven hours a day to electronic media use, or about 53 hours per week.

"Today, more than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and many lack easy access to safe outdoor spaces," the White House said in the statement. "At the same time, kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens instead of outside."

But critics say that waiving fees may have adverse effects on the national parks.

“Efforts like this create more reliance on Congress, which can be problematic, since parks face a $12 billion backlog on maintenance costs," says Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. When parks rely on Congress, the projects that are funded are less based on need and more based on political appeal.”

The United States currently has 58 registered national parks. Family passes for the parks cost around $80 a year. A federal program raised the fees for national parks, forests, and other public lands in 1996, leading critics to complain that federal land had become inaccessible to low-income families.

But Mr. Regan says that waiving fees will do little to make the parks more accessible, as research shows that travel costs usually affect a low-income family’s ability to access outdoor areas more than the admissions costs of parks.

“Entrance fees make up around 2 percent of the costs for people visiting national parks. Waiving the entrance fees is not likely to do much,” Regan says.

However, the new plan does aim to address some of these issues. As part of the new initiative the National Park Foundation, a congressionally chartered foundation of the National Park Service, is expanding and re-launching a program known as "Ticket To Ride," which offers transportation grants to kids so they can visit parks, public lands, and waters. The grants are awarded to schools deemed the most in need.

The Obama administration also plans to distribute information that will make it easier for families and teachers to identify where the nearest public lands are and locate local programs that support youth outings, the White House said in a statement.

In order to fund these efforts, the president’s 2016 budget includes a total increase of $45 million for youth engagement programs. The budget will designate $20 million to the National Park Service for youth activities, including bringing 1 million fourth-grade children from low-income areas to national parks. The increase will also fund youth coordinators who will aim to support and enhance the learning experiences of the children and families. It will affect roughly 4 million 9- and 10-year-olds and their families.

During the same visit to Chicago the president is scheduled to announce the creation of three new national monuments across the country. Mr. Obama will make the announcements near the site of the historic Pullman town in Chicago, a location known historically as a hot spot of the labor and civil rights movements. The site also will become the city’s first National Park Service unit.

The White House has not explained why fourth-graders were chosen instead of children from another grade. 

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