Whatever else can be said about the United States, the natural beauty contained within our borders is perhaps unparalleled in diversity and grandeur. It’s a sometimes underrated part of what makes America unique: Canada may have sane leadership and universal healthcare, but hey, at least we have the Grand Canyon.
And thanks to the National Park Service, that natural beauty belongs to everyone — well, not all of it, but the most spectacular parts. The federal government preserves places of particular majesty or historical significance, ensuring that they remain unspoiled by human interference, and all we have to do is pay a small fee to get in.
Seems like a good deal, right? Of course it does. But the National Park Service is considering a move that would threaten the simple concept behind the parks. For the parks to be open to everyone, the entry fee has to be affordable — and last week, the agency proposed raising that fee from $25-$30 to $70 at some parks during parts of the year.
To be fair, they’re not just doing this on a whim. As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke explained, “the infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” and the fee hike would help pay for these improvements. And the new fee would only apply to 17 of the most visited parks, during the busiest five months of the year.
But those 17 parks are highly visited for a reason: They’re the best ones, the ones that draw tourists from around the world, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain. Neither of Texas’s two national parks, Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains, is on the list, but they could see price hikes in the future if the government sets this precedent.
Access to these precious pieces of our national treasure shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for anyone. At the same time, however, the national parks are struggling to accommodate more and more visitors each year with decaying infrastructure. So what should the government do?
Well, maybe Zinke should talk to his boss. Despite purported interest in improving the national parks, this administration’s proposed federal budget slashes funding for both the Interior Department and the National Park Service. It’s all in the service of tax cuts, of course, but what’s the point of tax cuts if you just end up paying more for government services?
Perhaps a fee increase is necessary to make these improvements. As things stand, however, Zinke and the administration look disingenuous. They claim to want to improve the parks. But rather than pitch in themselves, they’d prefer to cut the agency’s budget and shoulder park visitors with the burden of paying for improvements, consequently making the parks less accessible for some. That’s antithetical to the whole mission of the National Park Service.
Public comment on the proposed increase is open on the agency’s website until Nov. 23.
Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.