By Matthew Anderson
Published on November 2, 2017

Originally published by the Washington Examiner.

If the National Park Service moves ahead with its latest proposal to drastically increase entrance fees, countless American families will be locked out of the natural beauty and grandeur of our national parks.

Last week, the park service put forward a plan to more than double the current admission price for 17 parks during peak visitation season, hoping to raise $68.6 million in additional revenue in the first year.

Our national parks should be within reach of every citizen. We cannot allow these natural wonders to become another economic divide, where hardworking Americans are once again left on the outside looking in while only the wealthy get to experience our national treasures.

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Why such an increase? The National Park Service is hoping to tackle its deferred maintenance backlog of over $11 billion. This backlog consists of all the maintenance projects that were not completed on schedule and were consequently put off or delayed. The symptoms of this backlog are rampant throughout our national parks: deteriorating wastewater systems, run-down visitor centers, and dilapidated hiking trails. How do you get an $11 billion backlog? It’s not an issue with a lack of funding; it’s how that funding is used.

And while the backlog grows and families are locked out of an affordable vacation, the government continues to acquire more land under the premise that “the federal government can manage the land better.” Fortunately, when it comes to national parks, there is a practical, positive solution.

Each year, the National Park Service receives money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which by law can only be used to purchase land. Since LWCF’s inception, the park service has received $4.5 billion, an average of almost $85 million a year. But as the park service acquires more land, it must maintain more land, putting our park rangers in an impossible position.

Expecting the park service to keep buying land when its resources are insufficient to care for the land it already manages is unfair to the land managers and neglectful of the responsibility to be careful stewards of our public lands. It is a situation that demands a change in policy.

The National Park Service should be commended for trying to find a solution to its long-standing maintenance backlog, but putting the burden solely on the backs of American families visiting our parks is the wrong approach. There is a better way.

While a modest fee increase is likely needed, Congress must also act to reform the LWCF, giving the National Park Service flexibility to use these funds for the care and maintenance of our parks. By altering their use of LWCF funds, park rangers can focus on caring for what we already have and stop the deterioration of our national parks.

This action alone will not fix the $11 billion backlog. However, it will lighten the burden on American families, who have the right to access public lands; lessen the future maintenance burden on the park service; and open a significant revenue stream to address the current backlog. In terms of good governance and land management, reforming the LWCF is better policy than significantly raising entrance fees.

Proper stewardship requires us to ensure we can care for what we already have before taking on greater responsibilities. Our national parks are our nation’s crown jewels, and we can’t justify neglecting them in the face of the distracting temptation to acquire more land. If we have the practical wisdom and political fortitude to pursue better policies, we will be better stewards of the public lands we cherish while providing friends, family and fellow citizens from every economic status the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by America’s national parks.

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Matt Anderson is director of Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West. He has been featured in local, national and international media, including BBC, NPR, C-SPAN, Buzzfeed, the Washington Examiner and a variety of Associated Press articles. Matt is a regular contributor to The Hill and Deseret News.

Matt graduated from Utah State University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and is pursuing a master’s of political science with an emphasis in public lands policy. He is an active member of his community – volunteering on political campaigns, serving as a state delegate and precinct chair – and he is involved with a number of conservation organizations. When Matt isn’t working on public policy, you are likely to find him in Utah’s Bear River Mountain Range fly-fishing, hunting or ATV riding.

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