The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 70: Park Pass Pique

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

The America The Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Interagency Recreation Pass; is this mouthful a sneaky price hike, or a new good deal? This week on The WildeBeat, Park Pass Pique.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number seventy.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Every year about this time, I go out and buy a new annual national park pass. I visit national parks at least half a dozen times a year, so it makes sense for me. This fifty dollar pass covers the entrance fee for all national parks as often as I want to go. Last weekend, I happened to stop by Muir Woods National Monument near Marin, California.

STEVE: I have an annual parks pass here I'd like to renew. Can I still do that with the standard National Parks Pass?

HUGO WENZEL: Yes, you may.

STEVE: And I can do that on a credit card.

HUGO WENZEL: Yes you can. Either Mastercard or Visa.

STEVE: OK. Great. I'll give you this.

HUGO WENZEL: This'll be good until the end of December, two thousand seven...

HUGO WENZEL: So that's fifty dollars...

HUGO WENZEL: And I need you to sign.

STEVE: Is this a popular thing for the visitors to this park?

HUGO WENZEL: The national parks pass? It's very popular.

HUGO WENZEL: So I'll punch the card to show that it expires the end of December, two thousand seven.

HUGO WENZEL: And I need you to sign the back of it.

HUGO WENZEL: Now the pass ...must be present when you come to the park because there's no database to look up your name or anything. So you have to have it with you, and it's good for you and everyone in your car.

STEVE: Great.

HUGO WENZEL: And this is your receipt.

STEVE: Thank you so much.

STEVE: This will be the last national parks pass I'll ever buy. That's because a press release I got last week said that it's been replaced by a new pass. That press release came from Alex Picavet, the Public Information Officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

ALEX PICAVET: The new interagency park pass program is going to replace the National Parks Pass that people are already familiar with, and the Golden Eagle passes... that has been replaced with an interagency pass that will now cost eighty dollars...

STEVE: So for a person who is only interested in visiting the national parks, this represents over a fifty percent increase in price. ...Is the situation in the parks dire enough that that much of an increase is necessary?

ALEX PICAVET: So this was not a decision just by the National Park Service to change the fee structure. This was a decision at a different level.

STEVE: That different level where the decision was made was well above a single national park. The most senior person in Washington I was able to talk to about this was Jim Bedwell. He's the National Director of Recreation and Heritage Resources for the United States Forest Service.

JIM BEDWELL: It is a new program, but it's really replacing a number of passes that various federal agencies had in the past. We think it's a great improvement in convenience and consistency, and a good buy for those frequent visitors to public lands.

STEVE: How long has this been project been in the planning stages?

JIM BEDWELL: It was included in the legislation which created the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. That was passed in December of two thousand and four. That authorized and directed the development of an interagency pass. So you could say over two years it's been in development.

STEVE: But it is like a sixty percent increase for ...those of us who were buying let's say a national park pass.

JIM BEDWELL: Well the last time the Golden Eagle Passport was changed in price, that was sixty five dollars, and that enabled entrance to a number of public lands... but this one does provide access without questions, without any confusion to all the lands of the Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. So it is a much more convenience, and broadly recognizable pass.

STEVE: So when a person buys one of these passes, how are the funds allocated to the different places that they might visit?

JIM BEDWELL: A minimum of eighty percent of the funds are returned to the place where those are sold... So they are utilized by the local units that sell the passes for use within their area. There are some that are sold nationally online and the like, and those are allocated through our national processes.

STEVE: OK. Well Jim is there anything else about this program that you think the public should know about that I haven't asked you about?

JIM BEDWELL: Well, it does include some technology that's not operational right now, in other words an embedded chip. So eventually, down the line we'll be able to get better information on where people are going and that's not by the individual or anything, but that will aid us in the allocation of the funds that are sold on the national level or through vendors.

STEVE: To get an unofficial perspective I called Kurt Repanshek. Kurt writes a blog called the National Parks Traveler.

KURT REPANSHEK: You know, that has been a pass that's been in the works for a few years, I think back in two thousand and four, Congress told the Interior Department and Agriculture Department to start working on this pass and so it's kind of been in the system, you know, they've been having stakeholder meetings and trying to work out the kinks and the flaws before they rolled it out, and some people think that was kind of done under the radar screen of really public involvement until just the other week until all of a sudden we had a news release coming out of Washington saying we're going to have this brand new pass on January first.

STEVE: Can you characterize the sort of range of comments that are out there among environmental bloggers about this new pass?

KURT REPANSHEK: You know Steve I think a lot of the sentiment that I've run across among the environmental blogs is that there's a lot of outrage about how the people in Washington have sprung this new pass on the general public. For so long these lands have been owned by Americans, and our tax dollars go to support and pay for the operation and maintenance of these lands, and then all of a sudden to have this fee creep, as I call it, it keeps going in bigger and bigger bounds. And that there's a feeling that, "Hey wait a minute! We own these lands. You guys should be seeing that our tax dollars help pay for them. And it seems like fewer and fewer of our tax dollars are going to these parks, and going to these National Forests, and going to these B.L.M. lands, and we're starting to see the effects. In fewer rangers out there, fewer facilities, fewer interpretive programs." And so to have those losses on one hand, and these higher fees on the other hand, there's some friction there.

STEVE: One blogger who particularly objects to the pass is Scott Silver. He's the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group, Wild Wilderness.

SCOTT SILVER: I think it's an atrocious thing... Congress and the Senate never approved the creation of the America The Beautiful pass, it was added as a rider in the last minute to an appropriations bill in two thousand and four and passed over the objection of those who are responsible for managing the public lands... The America The Beautiful pass does one thing that is particularly bad: It decouples the fee that is paid from the service that is received... if you pay a fee of eighty dollars, that money goes to the maintenance of whatever agency sold you the pass. It doesn't go the the facilities you used. If you use national park facilities in California or Oregon, a user fee would normally pay to fund those facilities in California or Oregon that you're actually using. Now the money simply goes to fund an entire agency in fifty states.

STEVE: Back on the trail in Muir Woods, I talked to hikers Ian Cook and Amanda Barnes from Middletown, New York. I asked them what they thought of the new pass.

IAN COOK: I think to me it certainly depends on what they're using the funds for. I mean, I've heard some things about National Park Service being affected by politics, and certainly that's disconcerting. So I think I'd be perfectly willing to pay more than eighty dollars if I knew it was being used for the proper thing.

STEVE: Where do you think that balance should be between a taxpayer funding and admission fees for funding all the national parks?

IAN COOK: Well, I don't know. If they made it free, would people trample down the place?

AMANDA BARNES: I think the sad thing is that not everybody would be willing to come visit. Not everybody would be willing to maybe make the contributions, and to me, I'm perfectly willing to do that, but since some people aren't, I think you kind of have to have at least some tax revenue, or it just wouldn't be enough. And I think it is a good cause, so I'm perfectly willing to pay for that with my money.

STEVE: It's true that all of the federal agencies that manage our wild lands are drastically under-funded. Kurt Repanshek is willing to put up with the fees for that reason.

KURT REPANSHEK: I would hope that people would not see this price and say, "Oh jeez, I'm not going to go out and pay that much money to go out and explore lands that have always, you know, supposedly been owned by the American public and should be fee free." You know, I've always kind of viewed the entrance fees as an added contribution that I can make to a place that I love, a place that I want to see preserved and maintained in the best possible fashion.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your opinion on the new recreation pass, and about fees for access to public wilderness in general. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can download an extended version of this show, and find out more about the recreation passes, by following the links on our web site.

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Next time -- The Year in Gear Oh Seven.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number seventy. Thank you for listening.

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