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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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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 required and continue to need expensive development for visitor access and accommodation; staffing for general administration, protection, and interpretation; and maintenance of facilities and other improvements. Many of the later additions to the National Park System have required, in addition, 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 generally 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 argued 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 park 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 both park entry and use of developed facilities.

In these difficult economic times, with Federal budget deficits running well over $100 billion a year, there is more pressure than ever to cut "non essential" Government expenditures and increase revenues. As loath as we in the National Park Service are to admit it, the national parks are a national luxury. Except in certain urban recreation areas, moreover, park visitation is heavily weighted to the middle and upper income segments of the public--people who have the money and leisure to travel, who willingly pay the much greater charges levied at commercial theme parks and other private attractions, and who would be unlikely to forego the national parklands if visitor fees there were raised to levels commensurate with their values. These considerations have inspired recent proposals under both the last Democratic and current Republican administrations to increase entrance and user fees, in effect reducing the extent to which the general taxpayer subsidizes the park goer. These proposals have met with strong opposition in Congress, where key members have led the fight to freeze or hold down direct charges to the visiting public.

At such times of dissension, it is frequently useful to look at how today's issues have been regarded and handled in years and decades past. If ready resolution of the current debate is unlikely to be achieved by such a retrospective examination, at least the matter is put in perspective. Partisans on both sides may be reminded that similar battles have been fought before, that public, political, and administrative opinion has shifted over tine, and that no side has held a perpetual monopoly on wisdom. It is not the purpose of a history like this one to arrive at or even to recommend specific solutions, but rather to provide a broader context within which program managers can address today's concerns.

This study is the result of a charge to the newly appointed bureau historian of the National Park Service to prepare a "model" history of a significant Service program or activity, the goal being to inspire and guide further such projects by other historians in and outside the bureau. (A similar charge for a sample history of a park was fulfilled earlier this year with the author's "Assateague Island National Seashore; An Administrative History.") Chief Historian Edwin C. Bearss conceived the assignment as a means of demonstrating the value of the Service's revitalized administrative history program. Peggy Lipson, then of the Cultural Resources Management office, deserves full credit for suggesting park visitor fees as a timely topic for the history. Richard J. Rambur of the Ranger Activities and Protection Division and Dorothy J. Whitehead of the Office of Legislation were especially helpful in answering questions and making pertinent records available.

During the course of the research, Harry A. Butowsky of the History Division repeatedly characterized the topic as a cure for insomnia, no doubt seeking to impair the author's morale and determination. He gets no credit whatsoever for this product, for which he will surely be grateful.

Barry Mackintosh
December 7, 1982

*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.


Last Modified: Tues, Apr 4 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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