In my role as your go-to purveyor of unpopular opinions, I offer this: We should jack up the entrance fees for our national parks — a lot.
One of the many disappointments of the Trump administration is that in spite of his DGAF posturing, Donald Trump has always been a slave to public opinion, which made his administration all too easy to push around. On policy matters ranging from immigration to Syria to guns, Trump has repeatedly backed down in the face of public criticism. That was the case with one of the administration’s rare good ideas, modestly bumping up the entrance fees to the national parks. The proposal received more than 100,000 public comments, overwhelmingly negative, and Team Trump rolled over.
Instead of the significant increase that had been proposed, the fees will go up by only $5 in most cases.
For perspective: The entrance fee for a week in Yellowstone is $35 per vehicle. For a family of four in one Family Truckster, that comes to $5 per day for the whole gang. The cheapest ticket for Disneyland is more than $150 per person per day, which would notionally work out to $4,200 for the same seven days for four people that $35 will get you in a national park. There is room to raise the fees for Yellowstone and other very popular parks like it.
Why do that?
The National Park Service has two perennial complaints: One is that it is underfunded, and the other is that the national parks are overcrowded. Call me Machiavellian, but that, my friends, looks to me like the kind of problem that can be solved — and solved pretty easily: Keep raising the price of admissions until the parks aren’t overcrowded anymore.
People will whine, sure. You want to give poor people a discount coupon to salve your democratic conscience? Fine. Easy enough. But don’t tell me about how much you value the national parks if you aren’t willing to do what’s best for them, even if it is unpopular.
But if we are going to talk about the national parks like they are assets, then it is time to start treating them like assets. There is no real alternative to rationing access to the national parks, and the most straightforward — and fairest — way to ration access is through pricing.
In no sane world is entrance to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, etc., only ten bucks more than the cover charge at Assateague Island National Seashore.
We pay for government services out of tax revenue under the theory that we all benefit from these things together and, therefore, we all pay for these things together. And there is some truth in that. But you know who really benefits most from the national parks? The people who go to the national parks. I’m one of those people, and it makes sense to me that we should be the ones putting up most of the money.
Some of our Democratic friends like to talk about a so-called Green New Deal, a fantasy in which Americans are going to willingly endure the disruption, expense, and job loss resulting from an attempt to reorganize American industry and agriculture around the aesthetic and political preferences of a half-organized gaggle of Brooklyn poseurs and dorm-room radicals from Sarah Lawrence. And a lot of the same people will tell you — and they aren’t wrong about this — that we can’t raise the entrance fees to the national parks by a hundred bucks a week because Americans won’t stand for it. A nation that isn’t ready for meaningful Yellowstone pricing isn’t ready for meaningful carbon pricing.
Everybody likes the Ken Burns line that the national parks are “America’s best idea.” I’d go with the Bill of Rights there, but the parks are in the top 20, definitely.
So, act like it.