The best things in life may be free, but beginning next month, Great Falls Park in Maryland won't be one of them.
The park, which has been open and free to the public for more than 50 years, will begin charging an entrance fee, probably in mid-August.
Park ranger Paul Larson acknowledged that it will take frequent visitors to the park, part of the 187-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, a little time to get used to the $3 vehicle fee.
"People won't look favorably toward paying for something they used to have for free," Larson said. "I wouldn't."
The new fee comes as a result of a 1987 amendment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964, in which Congress gave the National Park Service new authority to revise its fee structure.
According to the Park Service's regional fee coordinator, Tony Sisto, the park was one of seven in the Washington area slated at that time to initiate an entrance fee. The other six parks, including Great Falls Park in Virginia, on the opposite bank of the Potomac River, began charging a fee in 1988. The Maryland park was spared because the construction of a fee kiosk and the repaving of the entrance road, which required additional funding, caused delays, Sisto said.
The National Park Service will collect $3 from each vehicle that enters the park entrance at the end of MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac. The pass is valid for seven days. Park visitors who enter by motorcyle, bicycle, or on foot will be charged $1 for access, also for seven days. Frequent park users can purchase a $10 annual pass, which will give them unlimited yearlong access to the park.
The Maryland park, which features mule-drawn barge rides along the historic C&O Canal, is a popular recreation area for local residents and tourists who enjoy kayaking, hiking and bicycling. According to National Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman, the park receives about 700,000 visitors annually, and can accommodate 500 cars. He estimated that the Park Service will collect about $300,000 annually in entrance fees.
Half of the proceeds will go to offset the costs of operating the National Park system's 355 parks throughout the country, according to district park manager Tom Nash. He said the remaining 50 percent will be earmarked for C&O National Historic Park, which has an annual budget of $3.2 million.
Nash said the Park Service will use the money for park maintenance, protection of the area's natural resources, and to fund the park's day-to-day operations.
"The whole park operation is at bare bones because of budget problems," Nash said. "Any money we get from the increase will be used to offset costs."
Public reaction to the new fee has been mixed, according to Nash. Because the park is long and linear, creating numerous access points along the canal's edge, Nash anticipated that some people will try to avoid paying by parking outside of the park and entering at a free entry point. "If we had to put up a fee station at every access point we'd have to hire 70 people," Nash said. "It's not feasible to put a fee station at every entrance."
On a recent weekday afternoon in Great Falls Park, most visitors said they would accept the new fee, albeit grudgingly.
"They've done a good job in maintaining the park," said Mike McCormick, a 29-year-old freelance writer who visits the park four to five times each week to kayak in the canal. "If they'll use the fee for that, then I'm all for it."