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Parques Para Todos: The NPS Fee Hike Is a Bump on a Longer Path to Equity

We can and must ensure equitable access to national parks while also investing in public lands infrastructure

My circle of professional friends and colleagues is abuzz with the recent announcement of the proposed National Park Service fee hikes that would increase the entry fees at 17 national parks, in some cases almost tripling the cost of a visit. Many have been interviewed and quoted for a variety of articles and news stories, which you can find here and here, and which I recommend you read. Nonetheless our quotes are brief snapshots of conversations we have been having for years about equitable access to our public lands – and this proposed fee hike serves only as a reminder that we must look at the landscape of this issue beyond the headline.

Grand Canyon Duskphoto by Joe Jiang / FlickrA National Park Service proposal to increase entry fees at 17 national parks (including the Grand Canyon, pictured) will harm efforts to improve access to public lands.

It is easy to stake positions on whether the fee hike is needed or not – the NPS says it will help address a maintenance backlog – and whether it will make access more difficult for communities that already have a lack of access to our national parks. To me, it takes a little more work to tease out the nuance and context necessary to understand why it is important to both invest in our public lands infrastructure and to ensure we have equitable access to parks, particularly as our nation’s demographics continue to shift with more diverse ethnic and cultural representation. Balancing these interests is imperative for the wellbeing of our public lands and our communities. Presenting the issue as an either/or conversation or a zero-sum game ensures we won’t move forward on this issue. We have seen this before in the environmental space when we frame a conversation of “economy vs. environment” or “jobs vs. conservation” for communities of color – especially when we know it is possible to have both.

First a few things I want state clearly:

  • Yes, we need to “fix our parks.” There has been an infrastructure maintenance backlog for years.
  • The physical and social infrastructure of our national parks will need to continue to change to reflect changing demographics – for example, creating picnic sites that can accommodate larger families than the typical nuclear family model, and of course including signage in other languages.
  • There is a real history of communities of color being excluded from our parks and facing real and perceived barriers to equitable access to our public lands, just as has been true in other spaces like healthcare, and education. We have not traditionally connected civil rights with our public lands, but that is changing.
  • The demographics in America are not changing back to what they were 20, 30, or 50 years ago. We must acknowledge and embrace this fact in our public lands planning since the constituency and stewardship for parks will depend on this diversity.
  • Our public lands are the heritage and birthright of all Americans. They were also born out of the disenfranchisement, colonization, expulsion, erasure, and sometimes genocide of some communities and their culture.

I could go on with a few more, but in this context it becomes clear that the proposed fee hike is a part of a larger conversation, one that is driving forward an inclusive vision as articulated by the Next 100 Coalition, which aims to protect public lands for all to enjoy. The three guiding principles of the coalition’s mission are that our public lands should: reflect the faces of our country, respect all cultures, and responsibly engage all people.

To me, there are a few guiding questions that help situate the fee hike within this broader narrative. The first and most direct question is, as Dan White writes in the Washington Post, “Will the fee hike make the national parks whiter?” That is as direct as you can get. I frame this point as a need to be aware of how a fee hike can increase the equity gap when it comes to national parks. Communities of color are already underrepresented in park visitation (as well as in the NPS workforce), and some communities will see a fee hike as yet another reason visiting national parks isn’t worth it.  Yes, those that are already connected to the value of parks will continue to go but that is not the concern. The concern is if the fee increase is a reminder of who the parks are for and for who they are not. As my colleague Glenn Nelson writes, “If national parks aren’t your thing, a $70 price tag is not going to help make it one.”

Second, we must ask whether the fee hike will undo recent work to engage and welcome more diverse communities. From Find Your Park, to Every Kid In A Park, to the Presidential Memorandum Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters, these initiatives all sent clear messages about working towards a more accessible and inclusive public lands system. The current Administration is not sending the same messages and this fee hike falls in that narrative.

It is true that this fee hike is only at 17 parks out of a system that includes 417 units, and it is true that crowd management is a real concern and issue to park managers. But the fee hike has been proposed for the country’s most iconic parks, the places that people recognize and associate with the words “national park.” Places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and so forth. These are the places that inspire a sense of awe that all should experience.

Lastly, will the fee hike really solve the problem it is seeking to address? Out of a maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion, these fee increases are only projected to raise $70 million annually. That is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the cost of improving infrastructure, but it represents a much larger dent in the efforts to make our parks more accessible to communities that have traditionally felt excluded. Addressing the economic reality of the situation should not be left simply to the Park Service and its visitors. It will require the leadership we expect out of elected officials in Congress and the White House. The Trump Administration, however, is proposing a cut to the Department of Interior’s budget while this is going on. And Congress does not treat park infrastructure as seriously as it does other infrastructure needs, let alone prioritize funding for parks the way it prioritizes funding for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Our national parks are part of a public lands system that offers incredible value, economic and otherwise. They should receive the investment they deserve, and we should demand the same equitable access to the parks system that we expect from other public services. The proposed fee hike will do more harm than good when it comes to improving access, at a time when we should be ensuring that our public lands will be enjoyed and supported by a changing America for the next 100 years.

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