What’s the price point of purple mountain majesty? Thanks to increased entry fees at 130 national parks this summer, some double or even triple their former levels, the cost of America the beautiful is on the rise. The National Park Service is hardly to blame for the hikes that have begun to make hiking pricey. It is the job of Congress to fund the Park Service at a level needed to keep our parks pristine and affordable.
Congress has funded the National Park Service inadequately in recent years and looks likely to do so again. The agency’s overall budget of about $3 billion has shrunk by 12 percent over the past five years. The Park Service has requested an additional $433 million from Congress for the coming fiscal year, but the appropriations bill for the Interior Department that the House is likely to take up this week falls $187 million short. The jump in park entrance fees suggests that the public has begun paying out of pocket for Congress’s obduracy.
Oddly, Park Service officials told us there is no relation between the service’s general fiscal woes and the latest price increases, which parks can institute now that the agency’s director has lifted a 2008 ban on higher fees. Funds from entrance fees go exclusively to visitor amenities, while the Park Service’s biggest problems lie elsewhere: In March, it reported a $11.5 billion backlog of maintenance projects, $852 million for the Mall alone. But the numbers speak for themselves: Our parks are short of money, and price hikes help provide it. Because increased funding in one area frees up cash in others, more congressional support for parks would surely lessen the urgency of high fees.
User fees are reasonable up to a point. But national parks are a public treasure that visitors should have the chance to enjoy at an affordable cost. Price increases put a burden on those who have scrounged to save for a vacation, and they surely will discourage some from enjoying their heritage. At the same time, the failure to fund maintenance projects prevents parks from operating at their peak. The Park Service celebrates its centennial next year. Then, Americans should be able to see the country’s vast natural offerings at their best.
Our national parks are just one casualty in Congress’s ongoing budget war: You can expect more. Too many Republicans refuse to acknowledge the need to raise revenue. Too many Democrats and Republicans alike refuse to contemplate any reduction in the growth of entitlement spending. The result is more of an already-inadequate budget going to health care, pensions and interest on the debt, and less of it going to defense, research, education and everything else — including those federally maintained fruited plains.