By Amy Cooke with contributor Tyson Thornburg
My love affair with Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has been personal and life-changing. Since the park’s creation in 1915, RMNP has been the premier example of Colorado’s natural beauty. Who could blame me or anyone else for treasuring it?
It was the Bicentennial, summer 1976. From my 13-year-old perspective, it seemed like everyone was headed east to Philadelphia, Boston, or Washington, D.C. to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. But not my family. Instead my parents packed up our Volkswagon bus, and we headed west to Colorado.
My first view of the Rocky Mountains looked like clouds in the distance, but as they came into focus, I felt like I was living on a postcard. A landscape I had only seen in photographs was wonderfully, beautifully real. It literally changed my life.
As we continued along I-70, I saw Long’s Peak just off to my right. We stopped in Maroon Bells but never made it to RMNP. I vowed one day to return both to visit the park and to live in Colorado. I came back 11 years later and have called the Centennial state home ever since.
RMNP is just one of “417 park units, 23 national scenic and national historic trails, and 60 wild and scenic rivers” that our National Park Service (NPS) preserves for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The rest of them are on my bucket list.
I’m not alone in my love for our national parks. “Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks ‘the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.’” Famous documentary film maker Ken Burns’ series to celebrate their 100th anniversary was titled “The National Parks: America’s best idea.”
Despite all the love, our national parks are underfunded and have serious issues with backlogged maintenance and restoration projects. With over $11 billion in deferred maintenance projects, plain and simple the parks need more money.
So why all the handwringing about the NPS plan to fund these projects through an increase in the peak-season entrance fees for the 17 biggest national parks?
Reed Watson of PERC (Property and Environmental Research Center) explains it as the myth of our national parks: “As taxpaying citizens, we should not pay to visit our national parks.” But the fact remains that “[o]ur national parks are chronically underfunded and visitor fees provide critical, though currently insufficient, funding for park operations and maintenance.”
Another fact that Watson highlights, how low entrance fees and passes are currently:
visitor fees make up less than 10 percent of the Park Service’s annual budget. This number is hardly surprising given how cheap most fees are: a seven-day pass into Yellowstone National Park is a paltry $30; day passes to the Cape Cod National Seashore are $3; and nearly two-thirds of all national park properties charge nothing at all.
I get that some want more taxpayer funding, but with a nation that’s already $20 trillion in debt and competing special interests, demanding more money doesn’t solve the funding problem. It only fuels a political debate and prolongs the project backlog.
If we truly want to help the NPS dig out of the deferred maintenance hole, then those of us who visit the biggest parks – including a significant number of global tourists – must help pay through increased fees.
The proposed plan would increase the per-vehicle fee from $30 to $70 and the season pass fee from $60-$75. Most of the additional revenue from these fees would stay within the park where it is sold, such as RMNP, to support the much-needed maintenance and upgrades costs, and the additional revenue would be used to support smaller national parks like Mesa Verde National Park and the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
This fee increase is a solid, affordable way to restore and maintain our beautiful national parks. All taxpayers still contribute to the NPS budget while at the same time putting more of the responsibility of funding backlogged projects on the people who use the parks.
Critics of the fee increases claim they will make parks like RMNP too expensive for visitors, but a simple comparison of other Colorado recreation and leisure activities show that the $70-$75 fee is a great deal for a family outing. The average cost of a single-day, adult lift ticket in Colorado is above $100. For less than the price of a single one-day lift ticket, a family could buy a season pass to Rocky Mountain National Park, which provides year-round family entertainment, with the added benefit of supporting Colorado’s natural beauty.
Or, instead of wasting upwards of $80 taking your family to see a movie for an evening, head to Rocky Mountain National Park and spend the day hiking and taking in the scenery.
Further, the NPS proposal doesn’t include a fee increase for Rocky Mountain National Park during the off-season. So even if visitors don’t want to take the deal of a seasonal pass for only $75, they can still visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the off-season at the old entrance fee rate, or visit on one of the “fee-free days”.
Even with the National Park Service’s proposed fee increase, I think Rocky Mountain National Park will maintain its allure to out-of-town tourists visiting the area. Park admission fees make up such a small portion of the budgets of visitors from out-of-town that an increase in the cost of the fees has a minimal effect on their decision to visit the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s biggest natural beauty, needs to fund its necessary maintenance and upgrades, as do the rest of the national parks. The proposed entrance fee increases are a smart, sustainable way to fund these projects. The revenue from the proposal would be used to maintain the park’s roads, sewer systems, historic sites, trails, and accessible campsites, among other projects. As Reed Watson suggested, some kind of voucher program could be developed to help low income families.
Rocky Mountain National Park is stunningly beautiful and one of the state’s best recreation activities for the price. And with increased funding through appropriately priced fees, it will be even better. It’s time all of us who use and claim to love the parks stop perpetuating the “taxpayer myth” and put our money where our heart is. If we really care about our national parks, we’ll do so with joy.
Tyson Thornburg is an energy and environmental policy researcher in the Future Leaders program at the Independence Institute, and a graduate student at the University of Denver studying Public Policy.