- - Monday, January 12, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

America’s national parks are national treasures, unique in their natural beauty, geological features and recreational opportunities. The parks rescued millions of acres from waste and often thoughtless abuse. Since President Ulysses Grant set aside a federal preservation in 1872, the national park system has evolved to become the envy of other nations.

The parks lie in 27 of the 50 states. The largest, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, covers 8 million acres in Alaska, and the smallest, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, covers only 6,000 acres, including much of downtown Hot Springs. The most visited is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, with 9 million visitors annually, and the least visited is the remote Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, which attracts only 5,000 visitors annually, all of them presumably hale, hearty and looking for robust adventure.

The National Park Service wants to spend $11.3 billion to get the parks tidied up and looking their best for a centennial celebration in 2016. But the service isn’t asking Congress for the money to pay for upgrades and improvements to trails, bridges, campgrounds and wastewater systems. The National Park Service proposes to raise admission and camping charges at 130 parks, with the people who use the parks paying a larger share of maintenance and operating costs.

The increases will be imposed park-by-park basis, with park superintendents deciding whether and by how much. Park fees are expected to increase between $5 and $10. If enacted, the increases will take effect with this summer’s vacation season.

The parks have been called “America’s best idea,” and a young Theodore Roosevelt certainly thought so. He agreed with the naturalist John Muir who wrote at the turn of the 20th century that the “great wilds of our country, once held to be boundless and inexhaustible, are being rapidly invaded and overrun and everything destructible in them is being destroyed.” During his presidency in the first decade of the 20th century, Roosevelt created five new national parks, 51 bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, 18 national monuments and set aside more than 100 million acres of timberland as national forests. This would be Roosevelt’s lasting legacy.

Historically, the parks have been funded by “user fees,” paid by visitors who use them, which is the way it ought to be. When admission and camping fees haven’t kept up with inflation Congress has made up the difference. This has grown to $2.6 billion annually, with the park service counting 277 million annual visitors. Entrance fees haven’t been increased since 1997, and if the price of the $20 seven-day pass imposed in many of the parks reflected rising inflation the price of a pass, as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the passes would cost almost $30.

The costs of repairing roads and campgrounds are up by 50 percent over the past two decades, and the Park Service estimates that it will need that $11.3 billion just to bring maintenance up to standard. Asking the vacationers who enjoy the parks to pay fair share of maintaining the parks is only fair. They’re getting a bargain.

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