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Traveler's View: Disney's Answer To Theme Park Crowds Should Not Be The National Park Service's


"For the benefit and enjoyment of the people," all people, not just those who can afford nibbling price increases/NPS

More, and higher, entrance fees to national parks have been in the news lately, and neither is a good idea, frankly.

Most recently, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the House Natural Resources Committee last week that he wants more entrance fees charged across the National Park System to help offset a $400 million cut in the National Park Service budget proposed by President Trump. (The secretary also believes more resource extraction from public lands could help the Park Service's budget problems, but that's fodder for another column.)

And some have at various times suggested "surge pricing," when regular entrance fees are boosted during popular time periods (Fourth of July weekend, perhaps?) as a means of increasing Park Service revenues. 

Managers of Disney's theme parks discovered a predictable result when they turned to surge pricing in response to crowding: ticket sales, and attendance, fell. According to recent media reports, 13 of 14 Disney theme parks saw attendance fall last year when compared with 2015. Why? Higher ticket prices, according to analysts. The company didn't take a financial hit, though, as the higher ticket prices carried the day: a 9 percent increase in operating income.

Now, let's be clear: National parks should not be compared to theme parks. There is no comparison. National parks win, hands down. But as the National Park System sees year of record growth after year of record growth, the system is being unnecessarily and destructively strained. Resources are being impacted, park staffs are being pushed past the limit, and the park experience is being diminished.

And the leadership of the Park Service largely has turned a blind eye toward the problem.

Back in 1978 -- the year Queen hit the top of the rock music charts with "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions" and the Who asked "Who Are You?" -- Congress, through its National Park Service Management Act, directed park superintendents to "identify visitor carrying capacities for managing public use. Superintendents will also identify ways to monitor for and address unacceptable impacts on park resources and visitor experiences."

§ 8.2 – Visitor Use: “Management controls and conditions must be established for all park uses to ensure that park resources and values are preserved and protected for the future. If and when a superintendent has a reasonable basis for believing that an ongoing or proposed public use would cause unacceptable impacts to park resources or values, the superintendent must make adjustments to the way the activity is conducted to eliminate the unacceptable impacts. If the adjustments do not succeed in eliminating the unacceptable impacts, the superintendent may (1) temporarily or permanently close a specific area, or (2) place limitations on the use, or (3) prohibit the use. Restrictions placed on recreational uses that have otherwise been found to be appropriate will be limited to the minimum necessary to protect park resources and values and promote visitor safety and enjoyment. … When practicable, restrictions will be based on the results of study or research, including (when appropriate) research in the social sciences.”

Well, here we are in 2017, and no park has set a limit -- daily, monthly, or annually -- for visitation. Instead, we have parks such as Yellowstone talking about building new parking lots to handle the crowds, Zion working on a visitor use plan, and Yosemite hoping new traffic patterns and parking spot reservations will make the crowds seem less crowding.

Though these efforts are good-intentioned, and while park managers are tinkering with ways to squeeze in as many visitors as want to come into their parks, resources are being damaged, social trails are eclipsing official trails, campgrounds are being turned into dusty basins, and staff are being pushed to the breaking point.

For the National Park System, there's a better, more democratic solution to managing crowds during the busy seasons: reservations.

There's no need to raise prices to limit crowds. No need to figure out where you can lay new asphalt or gravel for parking. No need to further strain limited park staff. No sticker shock that prices people out of the parks. The answer is obvious: Set a daily limit for visitation. 

Some parks already have a de facto carrying capacity: lodging. The relative dearth of lodging at Glacier National Park compared to that at Yellowstone or Grand Canyon has created a day-trip feeling there; stay after 5 p.m. with a room key in your hand, and Glacier becomes deliciously crowdless. Want to overnight in Yellowstone in a room instead of a tent? You best make your reservation at least six months in advance.

But lodging doesn't limit day traffic, and with nearby gateway towns such as West Yellowstone, Montana; Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Three Rivers, California; and Tusayan, Arizona, the out-of-park hotel/motel industry can funnel thousands into the parks every day and welcome them back at day's end.

The answer to park overcrowding, resource damage, and staff breakdown is simple: set a reasonable limit of daily visitation and force visitors to be deliberative in their vacation planning. Set aside perhaps 25 percent of the reservations for first-come, first-serve slots so there's still a way to address spur-of-the-moment travelers, but place the rest on a reservation system. Resorting to surge pricing will only serve to lock certain groups out of the parks at various times of the year.

Gateway towns might be slow to come around to support such a move, but continued degradation of national parks and the national park experience won't be good for business, either.

As for Secretary Zinke's desire to see more parks charge entrance fees -- currently, just 117 of the 417 units of the National Park System charge such fees -- Congress has been tasked with holding these lands in trust for all Americans, not only those who can afford to go there. And yes, for someone planning to visit Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite for a week, the prospect of a $50 or even $100 entrance fee for a family of four isn't likely going to change their plans.

But how might such an increase affect visitors heading from Washington, D.C., to Shenandoah National Park, or Boston to Cape Cod National Seashore? Would they pay the higher rate or head to a national forest, state forest, or state park instead? That would certainly lessen the human crush on the national parks, but it also would fail to nurture new advocates and stewards for the parks.

How else might the park system's fiscal needs be addressed?

Instead of ratcheting fees ever upward, why not ask the Air Force to go without one or two $95 million F-35A fighters (if they ever get out of testing and into production) every year or two? Or Congress could add a cent or two to the federal fuel tax, with the proceeds dedicated to national parks. Do that and the folks driving to the parks will help boost revenues without the need for a higher entrance fee.

Or, why not simply take a page from the Trump adminstration's own playbook: It has proposed to increase Interior's budget for managing oil and gas programs by $16 million, so why not pledge a similar amount or more to the National Park Service each year to better manage visitation and natural resources?

More than a few folks believe international park visitors should be charged a higher entrance fee. Some other nations do this. For instance, a U.S. citizen visiting Nairobi National Park in Kenya would be charged $43 per adult, which is 10 times the rate charged Kenyans. In China, though, fees can be all over the board due to the various agencies that might have a role in their national parks, according to an article last November in The Economist.

Yet there is no logic or consistency to the facilities on offer, the fees charged, the development permitted, or the conservation work undertaken at China’s 8,000-odd parks, reserves and protected areas.

What the U.S. National Park System does not need to do is lose "logic or consistency" in its fee structure, nor should the Park Service try to wipe out the maintenance backlog or work to supplant congressional appropriations by digging deeper into the pocketbooks of visitors. 

The national parks are wondrous realms, rich in adventures, inspiration, reflection, and rejuvenation. Let's not lose sight of that. Instead, let's be more creative in finding reasonable ways to fund and protect the system. 

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We all knew that a Trump presidency would be a disaster for the NPS and public lands.  We just never envisioned what a blight he would prove to be for humanity in general.  Irresponsible journalism in the form of Fox News abetted this real estate snake oil salesman.  If there is a silver lining, it is that organizations like the Washington Post and MSNBC have seen a great resurgence in viewers.  Meanwhile, Amerika tolerates press briefings devoid of press, cameras and audio. We are closing the newly opened borders with Cuba and generally pissing off our remaining European allies.  We are making great inroads with the Saudis, apparently and selling some of those fighter jets to Arab countries. Maybe those fighter jet sells  to the Middle East could be used to fund the NPS.

Oh wait, there are other walls that need to be built, and plenty of other countries to offend.  My bad.

 A year or so ago, there was a discussion here regarding a bike race at Zion (and potentially other parks).  At that time, there was an outcry that family vacations would be ruined by a park closed for a few hours, even thought a little research into their trip would have warned them well ahead of time of the closure.  Now think of the family that has driven/flown across the country and arrives at the park and is told the person in front of them hit the limit.  Talk about outcry.  Not a big fan of surge pricing but if the goal is to limit attendence on peak days it sounds like it would be far more user friendly.  

Yes.  Charge more for international tourists, whose taxes are not going to our national parks (the precious small fraction of US tax dollars, anyway).  Create an entry reservation system -- and then trumpet it from the mountaintops so that every single person who might go to a national park knows exactly what they need to do to accomplish that.  Yellowstone's lodging and campsites are already on a system that pretty much requires people to make reservations more than a year in advance (ever tried to get through on the first day the reservations open for the following year -- in May of the previous year???).  Ban gateway communities from becoming larger than a certain size so that the first positive thing people think about national parks isn't what a great economic resource the parks are.  Because it shouldn't be, and that's one of the biggest parts of the problem.  National parks should not be commercial enterprises, and that's more and more what they've become.

There needs to be a way to make all of this egalitarian, so that people of all incomes have an equal opportunity to get entry to the parks.  A lottery, perhaps?  We do this already for many back-country wildernesses.  

The sad part about this is that it does ruin the spontaneity of a visit.  I'm not sure exactly how my four-month cross-country trip last summer would have turned out without that spontaneity (I showed up at at least 28 different national parks, monuments, and historic sites on that trip -- granted, most of them were pretty obscure).  To think that I'd have to arrange months ahead of time to make my annual 2-hour treks to Mt. Rainier makes me want to cry (yes, I know I'm part of that problem myself).  But then I think of Yosemite Valley on an August weekend in 2011 (the last time I'll probably ever go there, my experience was so bad) and that also makes me want to cry.

I wish we could have things both ways, but we can't.  And there's not much to be done about it, either.  Kind of makes me wish I was part of my parents' generation in some ways.  I remember the parks from my childhood, but you can't go home again.

A difficult problem to be sure and who do you appease? My own preference would be put the visitor centers and movies outside the park in the surrounding communities. Get rid of the hotels, cafeterias, restaurants, hot showers and flush toilets, and sites that accommodate motor homes larger than lots of year round homes from inside the parks. Let people really experience nature and work just a little bit and be a tad bit uncomfortable to get it. It's surprising how much more satisfying it is when you do.

Reservations?  Let that foreign corporation make even more money from the shrinking middle class visitors who need affordable places to vacation?  The original Walt Disney idea for Disneyland - now trodden down by the new non-Disney corporate owners, who simply milk the parks for all they can get - was to limit attendance to a certain amount per day.  That fact was well-advertised, and it never created problems.  Disney wisely used safety as the reason, and the local fire departments stood behind Disney.   I'd say there are surely safety reasons for restricting visitation to certain parks; advertise the limits widely and people will control their own attendance - that's what happened at Disneyland.  But I am damn sick and  tired of seeing my money go to that foreign reservation company when  I want to visit MY park.

As to foreign visitors not paying taxes - there are billions spent at gateway communities and concessionaires, and those funds are taxed.  So another idea is to place a special  Park tax, like an occupation tax, on visitors to get some more money.  On the other hand, we could take some of that obscene war spending that goes into the black hole of the Pentagon to fund illegal and never-ending wars, couldn't we? But let's not be too hard on the Drumpf - the fact is that the recent so-called "Democratic" Presidents did NOTHING to help NPS or USFS budgets.  Wolves in sheeps' clothing they were - and Hillary would have been worse (although not worse than Drumpf).

We all knew?? Really? We all knew Hillary already sold mining rights to the Grand Canyon and Obama had lined up oil exploration at Zion. 

What was next had she won? 

Again, why let facts mix up your rant.

The NPS is too busy caving to political correctness to bother looking at real world solutions or even understanding who visits a national park and why.

Reservations?  Wake up and smell the money.  You have tour groups who come in daily. 

Zion shuttle service, if they had the room to maneuver, could be an example of efficient people moving.

GCNP killed a light rail system that would have eliminated the need for all the new parking lots.



Let's face it.  The good old days of the National Park experience are over.  This is the new reality.  I have seen the U.S. population nearly triple in my lifetime.  You should have gone years ago when you had the chance (unless you were too young or not born yet).

How would you determine who is feorign in order to charge them more? There are parks that are absolutly choaked with what I am sure are illegal alians. The idea of charging them more flys in the face of the whole Jarvis led NPS policy of the last eight years. I'm speaking of the "find your park" campaign and the minority outreach policies.

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