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Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Look Back by Barry Mackintosh


The national parklands are not free. They represent major financial investments by the federal government. The older parks were established on the public domain or donated lands, but they still needed and continue to need expensive development, staffing and maintenance. Many later additions to the National Park System have also required large public expenditures for land acquisition.

Throughout the history of the System there have been differences of opinion-often sharp-as to how these expenses should be borne. One side has held that admission to the parks and the use of most park facilities and services should be without specific charge to the visiting public, which is to say that the full cost of the parks should be paid by the general taxpayer. The other side has held that people actually using the parks should pay, through entrance and user fees, * a proportionately greater share than the public at large.

In recent times few have contended either that the parks should be entirely supported by their users or that all facilities, such as developed campsites, should be "free"; the issue has narrowed for the most part to whether and where entrance fees should be levied and how much should be charged for park entry and use of developed facilities. *In this paper, as in current official parlance, "user fees" are charges for specific facilities within parks and exclude entrance fees, even though the latter are charges for the use of parks as a whole.

William S. Keller, NPS


In 1908, Mount Rainier National Park became the first park at which the government levied visitor fees.

In these high-deficit times, there is more pressure than ever to cut federal expenditures and increase revenues. National parks represent “nonessential" spending (as much as we hate to admit it), and most of their visitors are relatively prosperous folk who have the money and leisure to travel, who willingly pay the higher charges levied at commercial attractions, and who would be unlikely to forego the parks if fees there were raised to levels commensurate with their values. These considerations have inspired proposals under both the last Democratic and current Republican administrations to in

crease entrance and user fees, in ef. fect reducing the extent to which the general taxpayer subsidizes the park goer. Such proposals have en. couraged strong opposition in Congress, where key members have led the fight to freeze or hold down direct charges to the visiting public.

In common with other

government innovations before and since, the first national park was promoted to Congress as requiring no appropriated funds. Yellowstone's backers contended that concessioner rents would provide all the income needed for its administra

tion. Six years after its establishment in 1872, the park did start receiving appropriations for boundary marking and protection, but the need was billed as temporary.

Auto Permit Fees

In 1908, Mount Rainier National Park became the first park at which the government (as opposed to concessioners) levied visitor fees. The charges were for auto permits (Mount Rainier also being the first to admit automobiles). Cars and fees for their entry followed at General Grant (Kings Canyon's forerunner) in 1910, Crater Lake in 1911, Glacier in 1912, Yosemite and Sequoia in 1913, Mesa Verde in 1914, and Yellowstone in 1915. In 1916 seasonal auto permits ranged from $2 at Glacier and Mesa Verde to $10 at Yellowstone, with lower rates for single trips.

A year later single-trip permits were abolished and the season trip rate was reduced in most cases to the former single-trip rate, from $7.50 at Yellowstone down to 50 cents at General Grant.

The ideal of self-supporting parks still received rhetorical homage and was actually achieved on occasion. Yosemite turned a profit, primarily from concessions, in 1907; and Yellowstone's receipts exceeded expenditures in 1915 and 1916, when automobiles were first admitted there. During the 1914 season, 1,594 auto permits were issued at Mount Rainier, and its superintendent "confidently predicted that park revenues will be sufficient to meet the expenses

of an economical administration of park affairs as soon as the present road is permanently improved and safety and comfort assured to automobile users."

In the 1917 annual report of the National Park Service, Acting Director Horace M. Albright was equally optimistic, foreseeing that "the time will soon come when Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks and probably one or two more members of the system will yield sufficient revenue to cover costs of administration and maintenance of improvements."

Far more than would later be the case the National Park Service was then highly motivated to levy and collect auto fees, which were justified as offsetting the cost of park road construction. The receipts were held in a special account and could be spent for park purposes without Congressional appropriation. Congress viewed this arrangement as circumventing its prerogatives, however, and beginning in 1918 required fee receipts to go to the general Treasury. Inevitably, this reduced the Service's incentive for fee collection.

A key policy letter the Service prepared for Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane's signature in 1918 directed that "automobile fees in the parks should be reduced as the volume of motor travel increases." The volume increased rapidly, and the fees-high by current standards after the 1917 reduction-were cut again in 1926. Rep. Louis C. Cramton, chairman of the House Interior appropriations subcommittee, wanted still

lower charges. In his view, auto permits should serve only a regulatory function, not be expected to produce revenue. He suggested a seasonal pass that would admit a car to all national parks "for one or two dollars."

The Bureau of the Budget opposed this revenue curtailment, and Director Stephen T. Mather objected to the concept on other grounds, telling Cramton: 'In connection with the general fee for the parks there is a little question of psychology. You know yourself if a man goes to a park like Mesa Verde he should spend the entire summer there. Under your plan I am afraid that if there is one fee for all parks you would stimulate the desire to keep moving around, and they would only spend a few hours in one park." Cramton called Mather's argument "quite fanciful," seeing no reason why a single permit would cause people to slight the parks more than they did already. Some 40 years later his idea would be adopted.

Secretary Lane's letter also called for "a system of free camp sites ... with adequate water and sanitation facilities" in the parks. When the auto permit fees were cut in 1926, the Budget Bureau pressed for campground charges to offset the lost income. Mather and Cramton were united against such charges, believing that people would stay outside the developed campgrounds to avoid them. Cramton inserted in the fiscal 1928 Interior appropriations bill a provision forbidding appropriations to any park collecting campground fees.


Horace Albright, who succeeded Mather as director in 1929, was more sympathetic to the idea. "That is a more equitable fee than the automobile fee, because if you come in a national park and you bring your own camp equipment, you pay $3 and go to these campgrounds where you have comfort stations and tables and water, and you can stay there all summer and enjoy yourself," he told the appropriations subcommittee in 1932. "Someone else might go to the hotel, not getting any use of the Government facilities except the road, but it would cost them just as much money." But the campground fee prohibition was legally perpetuated until 1965.

The tremendous expansion of the National Park System in the 1930s, when numerous historic sites and structures needing costly restoration and maintenance were acquired, increased the servicewide disparity between income and outgo. Although the old vision of a self-supporting park system was largely forgotten, most concerned members of Congress now agreed that park users should do more to share the cost.

visitors receive which are not received by other citizens who do not visit the parks that are available to them, but who contribute to the support of these parks." Charges remained nominal, ranging from 10 cents at some historical areas to $3 at Yellowstone.

Following World War II, greatly increased visitation boosted revenues, but deteriorating park facilities, the addition of still more areas with low or no fees, and inflation further reduced their ratio to appropriations. Pressure from the House appropriations committee forced a fee increase in 1953, but the costly Mission 66 development program inaugurated three years later made for a still bigger deficit. "Does this seem fair, equitable, and wise, or should the visitors to the parks pay a larger proportion of the expenses-more than about 6 per cent in 19597" historian John Ise asked at the end of the decade.

from other specified sources, would go in a separate Treasury

a account for recreational land acquisition. The act authorized a $7 annual permit, the “Golden Eagle," good for all areas with entrance fees, lesser charges for visits to single areas, and user fees for developed facilities within areas, such as campgrounds.

Revenues under the act fell far short of estimates, causing its amendment in 1968 to add offshore oil and gas leasing receipts to the fund. Of the several fee collecting bureaus, only the National Park Service contributed enough to justify its participation. Even so, it did not begin to levy campground fees until 1970. Another amendment to the act that year raised the Golden Eagle permit to $10. A free Golden Age Passport for persons 62 and older was authorized in 1972.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act

New Visitor Fees

Also beginning in 1972, visitor fee revenues no longer went to the Land and Water Conservation Fund but to a special Treasury account "for appropriation, without prejudice to appropriations from other sources for the same purposes, for any authorized outdoor recreation function of the agency by which the fees were collected.

.." Although this arrangement was envisioned as an incentive to fee collection, in practice it would prove impossible to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress to ignore the existence and level of fee receipts in recommending and making appropriations to the agencies from other sources. Rather than treating fee income as a bonus, OMB came to see it as a means of offsetting

In 1962 the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission reported to the President and Congress on the nation's recreational needs. Its report inspired what would become the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. Frequently amended, this act served thereafter as the basic fee collection authority for the National Park Service and other federal bureaus administering recreational lands.

Under the act, all proceeds from visitor fees collected by the bureaus, together with income

In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Budget Bureau instructed the Service to develop a more broadly based visitor fee structure. Announcing new fees for more parks and services in 1939, Secretary Harold L. Ickes s'ated that "those who actually visit the national parks and monuments should make small contributions to their upkeep for the services those

Visitor Fee Study

the Service's budget requests and urged higher fees for just that purpose.

Corps of Engineers

The Corps of Engineers, which administered recreational facilities at certain reservoirs, was a reluctant partner in the interagency fee system. It succeeded in exempting itself from entrance fees in 1972, and the next year its friends in Congress prepared an amendment to earlier Corps legislation that would prohibit user fees in Corps areas for common day use facilities and for campgrounds without flush toilets, showers, and other specified amenities. As enacted, the provision amended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and thus applied to all federal recreation providers, including the Park Service. Few Service or other government campgrounds qualified for fee collection under the new law, forcing the agencies to drop their charges in the middle of the 1973 season. Congress corrected this unintended result in 1974 with yet another amendment requiring fewer amenities for campground charges.

The National Park Service undertook a study of its visitor fee system in 1976-77. It found that in 1976, entrance and/or user fees had been levied at 116 units of the System (less than half the total) and had yielded $16.9 million: $9 million (53%) from entrance fees, $6.4 million (38 %) from user fees, and $1.6 million (9%) from Golden Eagle sales. Of the 66 parks charging entrance fees, 10 collected two-thirds of the revenue; of the 77 charging user fees (mostly for camping), 10 collected threefifths of the total. It was clear that entrance fees were more profitable than user fees and that a few areas -for the most part the large western parks-brought in a disproportionate share of revenues in both categories.

The latter factor made Service managers reluctant to adopt an incentive system, proposed by Interior officials, whereby parks collecting more fees would receive more in return. As the study report noted, fee receipts were not necessarily within a park's control; an incentive system might cause superintendents to overly stress collection, and the parks that received the most revenue were not always those most in need of more money.

Under heavy pressure from OMB, which slashed $12 million from the Service's fiscal 1980 budget request and advised it to raise the money itself, the Service planned more and higher fees to become effective that year. The additional revenues, forecast at more than 70 percent over the 1978 level, were to go for park mainten


Forest Service

Coincidentally, the Forest Service discontinued entrance fees at its national recreation areas, leaving the Park Service the sole bureau charging for entry. The Golden Eagle thus lost its interagency status, becoming a Park System permit only.

Admission to Yosemite National Park today is $3 per carload.

on the Golden Eagle, and enable each agency's revenues to be returned to a special account for its use. But a provision allowing agencies "to require an admission permit for the occupancy and use of Federal lands for hunting and fishing" caused such an outcry that the bill was hastily withdrawn.

contact engendered between Service personnel and visitors.

But Congress was unpersuaded, apparently preferring to spread park costs among the public at large rather than risk offending park visitors by asking them to pick up more of the tab. Although park supporters favored the purposes for which the administration proposed to allocate fee revenues, they were well aware that higher fees were wanted to supplant, rather than supplement, normal appropriations. Under the circumstances, their support for such initiatives tended to be nominal at best.

ance. Sen. Dale Bumpers and Rep. Philip Burton, chairmen of the Congressional subcommittees on parks, condemned the proposed increase.

Burton, an heir of Cramton in his philosophical opposition to fees, put through a bill freezing entrance fees at their January 1, 1979, levels and forbidding them where they did not then exist. Greater income from the most lucrative revenue source was thus sharply limited, leaving camping and other user fees the only means of significantly increasing the visitor's share of park costs.

The Service's fee collection program suffered a further blow in 1980, when Congress required all fee income to be deposited again in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The effect was to virtually eliminate whatever financial incentive remained to park managers: their costs could no longer be reimbursed from their receipts, as they were under the special account, and their parks would benefit little or not at all from the proceeds.

The new administration of President Ronald Reagan was in full agreement with the outgoing Carter administration on visitor fees as a desirable way to offset general revenue appropriations for the parks and other federal recreation areas. It sought to regain the initiative with its "Recreation Fees and Improvements Act of 1982," a draft bill sent to Congress that February. Returning to an interagency approach, the bill would authorize all federal recreation providers to collect entrance fees, repeal most legal restrictions on collection, eliminate the $10 ceiling

The administration tried again in July with a bill titled 'National Park System Fee Dedication and Park Improvement Act of 1982," a more modest proposal affecting only the Park System. The new bill would place the Service's fee receipts in a special appropriations account for "the repair, maintenance, and improvement of facilities, the provision of safety and services, and the restoration, protection, and preservation of natural and cultural resources, for the benefit and enjoyment of visitors to the National Park System." The freeze on entrance fees would be eliminated (but not the $10 ceiling on the Golden Eagle).

Congress did not act on the bill before adjournment. A similar bill was transmitted to the next Congress in March 1983, but as of mid-1984 its passage appeared unlikely.

Why the reluctance? A General Accounting Office study of park entrance fees in 1982 documented how long they were by historical standards and relative to those at comparable private attractions. It suggested that the fees be raised an average 150 percent, commensurate with a Golden Eagle increase to $25. It also noted some of the incidental benefits of entrance fee collection, such as the

A carload now pays $3 for admission to Yosemite, currently the highest entrance fee area in the National Park System. Considering that the maximum fee levied in 1926 was also $3 (at Yellowstone), the national parks must be among the biggest tourist bargains anywhere. Whether they should be quite such bargains remains a matter for debate.

Barry Mackintosh is bureau historian for the National Park Service. This article is condensed and updated from his 1983 study, Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History, issued by the Service's History Division.

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