In this era of increasing political polarization, few things at the heart of our national identity remain as universally beloved as the National Park Service. Treasured for their beauty and history, the 417 entities under the Park Service’s care have captivated millions of visitors from all backgrounds. The National Park Service is tasked with these locations’ preservation, but years of inadequate funding have led the Department of the Interior to propose drastic fee increases to many National Parks. Instead, the Federal Government should step up and increase its funding for the National Parks Service so the parks can truly be enjoyed by all Americans – not just wealthy Americans.
Our National Parks are in a state of disrepair. It costs money to remove litter, maintain roads and paths within parks and manage the effects of a changing environment. At present, there is a $12 billion backlog of these kinds of maintenance requests. Though it is an enormous undertaking, maintaining our parks now is not optional if we expect to have historic parks, monuments and natural spaces around for future generations to enjoy.
This is what taxes are for – certain things, like roads, bridges and, yes, National Parks, would not be appropriately funded if their costs were not distributed across the entire population. Because we think all of these items are very valuable for society to have, the government does the dirty work of collecting tax dollars, then spreading that income out across meaningful projects. Though our tax code may not be as progressive as it could be, it still generally asks that the rich pay more than the poor.
Increasing fees, on the other hand, would ask everyone to pay the high price, regardless of income level. With some proposed fees going as high as $70 per vehicle in certain parks, we cannot expect that every would-be visitor to a park will be able to pay that fee on top of the already increasing costs of traveling to parks.
As American citizens, the parks belong to all of us. We have chosen each particular place because it has great value to us, whether that value comes from the history a battlefield shares with us or the familiar beauty of our own Smoky Mountains. We also have a history of valuing the idea, however idealistic, that being an American gives you access to every opportunity and resource the country has to offer. What could be closer to a physical representation of that idealism than a park system created to make American natural resources accessible to the public as a whole?
I don’t know how I would solve most problems in government. Choices require sacrifices, and there are often no good options because it is not always clear how to make the numbers add up. On this issue, though, the answer really does seem for Congress to simply appropriate the necessary additional funding to the Parks Service, such that fee increases are not necessary. The burden of visiting a national park just should not fall so directly on the visitors when that burden can and will stop a set of visitors from being able to enjoy these places that are meant for all of us.
We know where our priorities should lie on this issue. We know that part of the joy of these protected entities is their accessibility. Whether you’re ready to scale Half-Dome or are more keen on leisurely strolls down the boardwalks which wind past Yellowstone’s geysers, the National Parks are for you. And they’re for every other resident in the United States. And they’re for the millions of international visitors who have seen one these wonders we should be proud of.
It’s okay to acknowledge the difficulty of keeping the parks maintained for so many eager visitors, but raising fees to unattainable levels for many isn’t a solution. It’s an abnegation of the mission of the National Parks Service.