By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Are you and your family a burden on the national park system? Are you disabled, and have an America the Beautiful pass that allows you and your car group free access to the nation’s parks? Are you a current or former military service member, and visit the parks free with an interagency military pass? How about those a bit up in years, do you come through the gates at no charge with a lifetime or annual Senior Pass?
Chances are, many of our readers do have and use those passes. According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, those of us that have those passes are the reason that the Park System wants to jack up the cost of entry to many of the big parks for everyone else. Earlier this month, Zinke told members of the U.S. Senate the reason for the fee hikes: “When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door,” Zinke said. “So, we’re looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves.”
One way of “having more revenue in the front door” showed up last year when the agency multiplied the cost of a lifetime senior pass eight-fold, from $10 to $80. The Secretary declared this to be “the greatest bargain in America,” but depending on your budget, you might not look at it that way.
Some members of the public took umbrage with Zinke’s viewpoint. The National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit group that looks out for the rights of disabled people, stood up not only for its own group, but for others in a statement: “To blame a fee hike on admission to the most visited national parks on veterans, people with disabilities and the elderly is uninformed, hurtful, and frankly unconscionable. Collectively our national parks can be seen ‘as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage.'”
But no matter your view of whether or not certain groups of pass users were blamed, or just used as an example, there could be more to the story. While making his statements to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Interior Secretary made another comment that might be a subject of concern for the future. “Basically, one person with a pass, everyone in that car comes in free. Now, whether or not that’s correct, we’re looking at it.” If you or your spouse bought a lifetime Senior pass, knowing that both of you could come in for free, are we looking at a time where both will need a pass? How about the military service man or woman, home on leave, who wants to take the family to see the Grand Canyon? Will there be a “grand expenditure” at the gate, for everyone but the pass holder?
The future remains to be seen.