By Leta Dickinson
Yosemite will always have a special place in my heart. From the first time I laid eyes on the endless rows of pointed green tree tops, broken only by sheer granite cliffs, I saw what so many before me had seen and deemed worth protecting—that nature is incredible. Natural phenomena regularly take our breath away and never fail to surprise us. For as much as we like to exact our dominance through building ever taller cities and more powerful technology, Yosemite has a way of stripping us down to our innermost selves. It makes us feel vulnerable.
Now, imagine my dismay when, during my last trip to Yosemite, before even entering the park, my nature appreciation stupor was rudely interrupted by the park ranger at the entrance booth:
“Are you an America the Beautiful Annual Parks Pass Holder? No? Thirty dollars.”
Thirty dollars. For a single day’s entrance. I had come all this way in order to escape from everyday societal concerns, only to have the man in his boy-scout-khaki uniform demand that I concern myself with $30 of monetary compensation.
Yosemite didn’t used to charge this much. From 1997 up until 2015, a day in Yosemite was $20. In 2015, however, this all changed. National parks across the board have seen anywhere from 20 to 300 percent increases in day and annual pass rates in the last two years. According to the Washington Post, all of the United States’ national parks agreed to up their entry fees between the spring of 2015 and 2016. Yosemite, for example, which saw a 50 percent increase in prices, was a park on the low end of the price increase spectrum. With almost two-thirds of campers choosing to camp on government-owned land, this price bump affects a large group of people, many of whom are students—young, unemployed students. And like me, some of them may be disheartened, a little more broke, and left wondering, where is all this money going?
As it turns out, the park needs all the money it can get. In 2016, the National Park Service enacted budget was $2.8 billion. Besides the park maintenance of hundreds of miles of footpaths and cycle paths, the NPS funds climate change projects, science and monitoring programs, energy development research, health benefits for seasonal employees, and cultural preservation. But the list doesn’t stop there. The money also goes towards some causes you wouldn’t normally associate with national parks. Historical Black colleges and universities, Indian tribes, and post-Hurricane Sandy reconstruction efforts all received money from the National Park Service.
The reason why the price jump seemed so steep was because the entry prices to national parks had remained steady for two decades to encourage park attendance during the recent recession. During this time, however, many of the parks’ crucial projects, like maintaining trail quality to keep visitors safe, were put on hold due to insufficient funds. Finally, at a meeting in 2014, the National Park Service announced that all the parks were going to increase their fees to catch up on this necessary construction. In fact, the price increases, when inflation is accounted for, are not as steep as they may seem. That $20 entrance fee does not go nearly as far as it did in the late 20th century. TIME’s Money reports that $20 in 1997 is worth just under $30 today. Thus, the price increase, when adjusted for inflation, is more like 1.8 percent rather than 50.
This relatively minuscule increase in fees will hardly put a dent in the overdue work that needs to be done in all of the parks, not to mention countering the cuts to the Department of the Interior that President Donald Trump has put forward in his recent budget proposal. The department, which is charged with the management of resources and heritage like the 400 or so national parks, is set to lose $2 billion of government funding. This significant budget cut to the Department of the Interior will likely translate to reduced funds going to the National Parks Service.
When you consider all the groups and causes that the National Parks Service is supporting, combined with the significant cuts it will be facing if President Trump’s recently proposed budget is passed, it seems like we aren’t the vulnerable ones in this relationship. If anything, Yosemite should make us feel empowered—empowered to enact change. Government-funded parks are looking at hard times ahead, and $30 seems like a drop in the bucket. I would gladly give up those dollars to contribute to the countless noble causes of the National Parks Service. In fact, I would gladly pay more. I may not have been an America the Beautiful pass holder the last time I visited Yosemite, but next time, believe me, I will be. America truly is beautiful, but more importantly, America is worth protecting.