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Will Higher Fees Hurt the National Park Service's Diversity Efforts?

CityLab logo CityLab 10/27/2017 Linda Poon
breathtaking view of Yosemite national park at sunrise, California © hotshotsworldwide/Getty Images breathtaking view of Yosemite national park at sunrise, California

A trip to some of the U.S.’s top national parks doesn’t come cheap. Once you factor in travel costs, food, lodging, and gear, the dollar amount can easily reach into the hundreds.

So when the National Park Service on Tuesday proposed raising the entrance fee per vehicle to $70—more than double the current rate—critics responded that the agency risks pricing even more people, particularly low-income families, out of what is supposed to be public land. In doing so, NPS may be running counter to its own diversity campaign that it ramped up last year during its centennial celebration.

This changewould apply to 17 of the most visited sites, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Shenandoah. And it would go into effect during peak season, which, for many of the affected parks, falls between June and October. The proposal would also double the fee for motorcycles and triple the rate for those entering by foot or bike, depending on the park.

Faced with a proposed $300 million budget cut, the agency estimates that the new fees could increase annual revenue by as much as $70 million each year—money that would go toward the $11.3 billion backlog for repair and maintenance projects. The National Parks Service is now in a 30-day public comment period on the proposed change.

Critics say that by raising entrance fees while slashing key funding that NPS needs to maintain its staff and services, the Trump administration is placing the burden of fixing America’s national treasures on park-goers. As a result, such dramatic fare hikes trouble advocates like Jose Gonzalez, who say it could push away minority families. (That’s not to say all minority groups can’t afford to visit these parks, Gonzalez emphasizes. But black and Latino working families are more likely than their white counterparts to be of low income.)

“It's a reality that we need to fix our parks,” says Gonzales, who runs the group Latino Outdoor encouraging Latino families to join the outdoor movement. “But it's also a question of how you do it so that it doesn’t come at the expense of increasing an equity gap?” He acknowledges that the fee increase may not have much of an impact on low-income families who already find current travel expenses too costly. But for those who fall just outside that group, “making it even more challenging doesn’t help.”

To be clear, the entrance fee alone probably isn’t the deciding factor for most families, considering the other costs that can come with a trip. Ultimately, whether someone is able or willing to fork out that money also depends on their socioeconomic status and how much they value, or know about, the park system. Even so, Gonzalez says the steep price could reinforce the “perceived exclusion” that minority groups already feel in national parks.

“It’s got to do with feeling like you don’t belong, and having some innate fear that bad things might happen if you are way out in the West some place at a national park,” says Alan Spears at the National Parks Conservation Association. “If you team that with an incredible entrance fee, that might just be the thing that punches people's ticket and get them to go [elsewhere].”

NPS has long acknowledged its lack of diversity among visitors and employees. Its most recent demographic survey available found that collectively, minorities made up just 20 percent of visitors between 2008 and 2009, which NPS notes has changed little from the 2000 survey results. And with a predominantly white workforce, the agency also recognizes its disconnect with people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, and age groups.

Former NPS director Jon Jarvis launched the Urban Agenda in 2015 to bridge that gap, particularly between parks and the urban populations. Initiatives include the educational campaign Find Your Park (many minorities surveyed say they simply don’t know about the national park system) and the Every Kid in a Park program for fourth graders in underserved communities.

Not everyone opposes the price hike. Comments from supporters on social media argue that it could relieve the overcrowding problem at some of the more popular destinations. (In 2016, the NPS recorded a record 331 million visits, up 27.3 million from 2015.) It could also bring more attention to the lesser-known destinations, they say.

But Lincoln Larson, who studies human-environment interactions at North Carolina State University, argues that the benefits of having more visitors outweigh the negatives. “We've done a lot of research showing how greater recreation activity in parks leads to greater conservation behavior on the local scale and on larger scale," he says. “So it's certainly better to have more people engage with and supporting parks than not.”

Spears says this allpoints to a larger problem with the current administration’s whole funding strategy. “We got proposed large fee increases coming at the heels of the park service's budget and staffing being cut, at the same time when we're seeing record visitation,” he tells CityLab. “Those programs can't be run by fairies and elves; we got to have rangers and maintenance people in place who can actually deal with the public.” A diverse public, that is.

Nina Roberts, a San Francisco State University professor who studies race, culture, and gender issues in outdoor recreation, says it’s all about the messaging, particularly to groups who may lack awareness of the parks’ significance. Between funding cuts and proposals to privatize parks and shrink monuments, the current administration hasn’t exactly made its message clear.

“There needs to be this feedback loop of reaching people across culture, because pretty soon, racial minorities will be the majority,” she says. “Folks will need to share their stories with families and friends to encourage them to go. Otherwise, Congress will turn around and sell those lands, and we'll see a whole lot of condos real fast.”

In fact, Roberts’s own research shows that generally, people across all backgrounds would still be willing to pay a higher fee if it means that it would improve their parks. It’s just that “you have to give people rationale for it, and that goes across the board” she says. “I don't care what flavor they are.”

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