Environment & Science

It could cost $70 to visit Joshua Tree

Flooding and the combined traffic of thousands of cars, trucks and RVs have torn up the roads at Joshua Tree National Park's Black Rock Canyon Campground. The majority of the park's $35 million maintenance backlog is for roads like this.
Flooding and the combined traffic of thousands of cars, trucks and RVs have torn up the roads at Joshua Tree National Park's Black Rock Canyon Campground. The majority of the park's $35 million maintenance backlog is for roads like this.
Nathan Rott/NPR

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A new proposal by the National Park Service would more than double peak-season entrance fees at Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Park officials say the move is necessary to help pay for a backlog in maintenance. But critics say it will price some people out of visiting the parks.

The agency is proposing to increase the fees to $70 during a five-month period at 17 of the country’s most popular – and money-generating – national parks. Currently, it costs $30 or less per vehicle to enter the parks.

The higher fees would generate an additional $68 million for the park service, according to the agency. The money would be split between the parks and the agency as a whole with 80 percent remaining in the parks where it was collected.

The agency has let critical repairs lag for years, and the price tag has ballooned to $11.3 billion, up from $6.1 billion in 1998. Roads paving alone makes up nearly half of the total, followed by building repairs. In California’s parks and monuments, the agency needs to spend $1.7 billion, with nearly half of that in a single park: Yosemite.

“Some of these national parks are over 100 years old, and some of the infrastructure is showing its age,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum.

But Mark Magaña of GreenLatinos, a non-profit that works on environmental issues of interest to the Latino community, said that hiking entry fees flies in the face of the park service’s goal of attracting more diverse visitors. “ [It] will be diminished greatly by an effort to raise the fee. A family is just going to say, ‘I’ll go to the mall,’” he said. “It sends a message that the national parks are not for me.”

Barnum said the new fees are in line with what other states, counties and “family attractions” charge to enter their parks. But in California, most state parks and recreation areas charge between eight and twelve dollars per vehicle.

The public has until November 23, to comment on the increase proposal, which David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association said was not enough time for such a consequential change.

“The bottom line is this needs to be carefully considered because the impacts are going to be significant,” he said. He particularly worries about the economic impacts on "gateway communities," where small businesses are dependent on visitors to the parks.

Lamfrom and Magaña said they would rather see the maintenance backlog funded with oil and gas royalties. A bill introduced by a group of bipartisan U.S. representatives in May would do just that, but so far, it has not advanced out of committee. 

The Trump Administration is proposing to allocate an additional $34 million to deferred maintenance in its 2018 budget. However, overall, the park service could see its budget cut by 10 percent compared to last year if Congress approves the budget request. The move could force the Park Service to lay off 1,200 employees.

In 2016, the NPS raised its entrance fees but by a much smaller amount: just $5 to $10, depending on the park. And in August 2017, the National Park Service raised the price of its senior pass from $10 to $80. 

The Government Accountability Office criticized the NPS earlier this year for its approach to prioritizing some maintenance projects while letting others languish.