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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
I. THE PATTERN IS SET, 1908-1940
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Fee Reduction Pressures and Practice

As noted, the Service cut auto fees a year before it would lose direct control over the money collected. This apparent enigma may he explained by the phenomenal growth in the income from this source. In 1914 auto revenues totaled $14,993, with other sources-mostly concessions--yielding some $86,000. In 1916, $65,834 was realized from auto permits. Notwithstanding the 1917 fee reduction, income that year jumped to $90,969. In 1921 auto revenues soared to $210,489, outstripping the $182,000 received that year from concessions and other sources. [6]

With their overriding goals of promoting tourism and enlarging the public and political constituency for the parks, Mather and Albright were not out to charge all that the traffic would bear, regardless of whether their bureau got to keep the money. "[T]he development of the revenues of the parks should not impose a burden upon the visitor," declared the key policy letter signed by Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane (but prepared by the Service) in 1918. "Automobile fees in the parks should be reduced as the volume of motor travel increases." In addition to variously priced concession accommodations, each park was also to have "a system of free camp sites...with adequate water and sanitation facilities." This policy was generally followed, with another auto fee reduction coming in 1926 after the preceding year's revenues reached $470,940. [7]

Testifying before the Interior subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on November 19, 1926, Director Mather reviewed the evolution of the automobile fee structure and the free park campgrounds:

[W]hen we fixed the automobile fees we did so on a sort of haphazard basis. We took the approximate road mileage at that time, and made a charge of $7.50 for Yellowstone Park. The revenues for Yellowstone began to grow as the automobile travel began to increase. We made, at the same tine, a charge of $5 for the Yosemite Park, and other parks much less, because those two parks were the only ones that at that time could give facilities. Later, as we developed our camping facilities in the parks...we got our minds off the fact that we were assessing this fee on the basis of mileage, and figured that the only logical way to defend it was on the basis of the service we would render people in the parks. As rapidly as conditions would allow we established these public camps on a better and better scale, with more and more facilities, even down to the laundries for the women in one or two of them, with hot water, etc., and we felt then that we were giving a much better service, and were in a much better position to defend these charges than simply on the basis of a road charge.

In certain parks we made no charges... [W]e made no charge whatever for the Rocky Mountain National Park, based largely on the fact that the State of Colorado had done the preliminary work of building the Fall River road across the divide, and it did not seem to be in order to charge anything there at that time, particularly as there was so much private land in the park that it was almost impossible to lay out any sort of decent public camping facilities for the people.

However, we retained these rates, based, as I say, primarily on road mileage, and at the same time we were being urged by the different chairmen of the appropriations committees to do this. [8]

Mather's testimony was prompted by the desire of the incumbent subcommittee chairman, Representative Louis C. Cramton of Michigan, to reduce the burden of auto fees. The fee reduction that year had not gone far enough, he felt, particularly for the growing number of tourists visiting several parks a year:

So, as you will recall, Mr. Mather, my suggestion was that you should issue a license that would be good for a certain car in all the National parks, getting away from the idea of revenue producing.... In the old countries they charge admission to almost everything of that kind. If you want to make the parks self-supporting, and not call on the Federal Treasury for any appropriations for them, that could be done, and you could charge people for coming in; but apart from that theory, which I do not believe is the real American theory, there is no more reason for charging for an automobile to enter a park than for a person.

Cramton suggested a seasonal pass that would admit a car to all national parks "for one or two dollars," its purpose being visitor control only rather than revenue. [9]

In response, Mather indicated that the Bureau of the Budget had resisted the degree of revenue reduction that Cramton's idea would cause, and that even the lesser fee cut implemented that year (which unlike the 1917 cut led to reduced income for several years) had made the Budget Bureau press for offsetting campground charges. Nor was Mather himself enthusiastic about the all-park permit concept:

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 any more than they did already. "That is one of the greatest difficulties that you have, but I would like this to go ahead," he said. "The American idea is not that there is going to be somebody with a collection box every time you turn around in a publicly owned enterprise." [10]

On the subject of the proposed campground charges, Mather and Cramton were united in opposition. "[I]f you are making a charge in your automobile camp and no charge up in the woods, you are making a real encouragement to them to avoid automobile camps that you have gone to a great deal of expense to erect," said Cramton. Mather concurred: "You drive a man out who otherwise would prefer to stay there." [11]

Undeterred by Mather's resistance to the all-park permit proposal, Cramton attached an amendment to the fiscal 1928 Interior appropriations bill with the purpose of mandating such an arrangement:

None of the appropriations contained in this act for the National Park Service shall be available for any expenditure in connection with the issuance of automobile permits or the collection of charges therefor, except such permits and charges which entitle the holder to entrance to all of the national parks and national monuments alike, upon the single annual permit charge of not more than $2.

When the bill was brought to the House floor for discussion on December 14, 1926, Representative Joseph W. Byrns of Tennessee took exception to the amendment on a point of order, contending that it constituted substantive legislation and was therefore improper in an appropriations bill. Byrns readily admitted that his point of order was based on his disagreement with the content of the provision; he would not have raised it, he said, had the charge been set at $7.50 (the pre-1926 Yellowstone auto fee). The debate that followed remains an excellent presentation of the opposing philosophies on park fees.

Byrns recalled that support for the concept of self-sufficiency had been prevalent a decade earlier: "[I]t was always the policy and intention of the Appropriations committee at that time and in the House that, while it was not expected that these parks would fully pay their way, there would come a time when they would more nearly bring in a revenue approaching what they cost the people." He cited the 1926 shortfall of $2.4 million in park receipts under expenditures and expressed displeasure that the Park Service had elected to reduce auto fees in the face of it. Cramton's amendment would only make matters worse:

[A]ppropriations made for these parks are made for the purpose of establishing camps where there are sewers, where there is hot water for tourists, where there are laundries for the women, and kitchens and camps and all the other facilities provided in an ordinary hotel, except solid substantial structures, and the people of the country are being asked to provide these facilities...for people who have the leisure to go out there and visit these parks.... I think the Treasury of the United States should be considered in this matter, and we should not undertake to reduce revenues coming into those parks, especially as we are affording visitors such splendid facilities for convenience and entertainment. [12]

Cramton's response indicated the extent to which the House Appropriations Committee's thinking had changed under his leadership of the Interior subcommittee:

The idea of the committee has been that there should simply be a regulatory power, so that permits may be issued, and if a person should drive over the roads in the parks while drunk and endanger the lives of others, those permits can be revoked.... In national parks the theory of the committee is that the revenue-producing feature should be eliminated, so that they may be truly national in practice as well as in name. [13]

The chair ruled for Byrns' point of order, killing the Cramton amendment. Representative Tom D. McKeown of Oklahoma then offered an even more limiting amendment to preclude "the collection of any fees for entering any park." Cramton observed that this language would not affect auto permit charges, which were technically not entrance fees but license fees; the only areas with entrance fees per se were Wind Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Monument. McKeown's amendment was ruled in order but was voted down by the members present. Byrns and Cramton continued their debate, with the Tennessean warning of unpleasant consequences from the recent trend:

I want to say that if the Director of the Parks undertakes to reduce the fees, and thereby reduces the revenue, he may expect vigorous protest upon the floor of the House against any such action and a disposition not to be so liberal with future appropriations.... I am speaking as a friend of the national-park system, because I want to see these parks properly developed and maintained. I want to see liberal appropriations, but I protest against the attitude that we ought to spend all the money to provide extra facilities at the expense of the people of the United States, and that those who have leisure time to go there should not be required to pay anything toward the conveniences furnished them.

Cramton sharpened the difference between them:

I want to say that if the Director of the Parks undertakes Mr. Chairman, I never realized that I disagreed on so many things with the gentleman from Tennessee. His theory and mine are entirely different as to national parks. It is my idea that when people go to national parks that they should be allowed to walk in with no charge other than those of regulation... We should provide the facilities necessary that will enable the people of this country, those of small means, to go there and have places for them to camp in the park...

"I do not question the propriety of providing camps and all the sanitary facilities," Byrns replied, "but I do insist that when the people of the United States are called upon to provide them that those who do enjoy them should pay a reasonable fee for enjoying them." [14]

NEXT> The Prohibition of Campground Charges

6Annual Reports of the Director of the National Park Service, in Interior Reports, 1914-1921.

7Letter, Lane to Mather, May 13, 1918, in Interior Reports, 1918, I, 112; Interior Reports, 1926.

8Interior Appropriation Hearing, 1928, p. 833.

9Ibid., p. 831.

10Ibid., pp. 834-35, 837-38.

11Ibid., p. 839.

1268 Congressional Record 464. (Byrns was the father of Fort Donelson National Military Park.)

13Ibid., p. 465.

14Ibid., pp. 465-67.


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

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