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National parks seek funding increase to mark centennial
Entrance fees for several national parks were raised last week, the first increase that many have experienced since 2008. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
The National Park Service turns 100 next year, and the White House hopes this seniority merits a pay raise from Congress.

A proposed bill introduced Sept. 18 aims to relieve some of the agency's financial strain by establishing a fund to finance "signature projects and programs to enhance the National Park System as it approaches its centennial in 2016 and to prepare the parks for another century of conservation, preservation, and enjoyment."

The bill asks for a $900 million fund for infrastructure spending, with an additional $300 million to be allocated for "signature" projects that parks will use to mark the centennial. This funds appropriated over three years would not be a permanent spending increase, but the bill would set up a endowment for the NPS to invest for its future. Federal funds would also match the donations the NPS receives each year.

The agency has not received the funding from Congress it hoped for in recent years, and the NPS says it has an estimated $11.5 billion need for the entire system of 400 properties. "We cannot greet (our visitors) with failing facilities," NPS Director Jon Jarvis told The Associated Press.

An op-ed in The New York Times argues, however, that policymakers need to rethink the park service's purpose and not rely so heavily on government appropriations.

Reed Watson and Scott Wilson of the think-tank Property and Environment Research Center wrote in June that the NPS has been too interested in expanding its control of lands that don't generate visitation revenue. They say the federal government should open lands to markets that want to tap into natural resources, and scale back NPS authority to high visitation locales like Yellowstone, where fees, not federal funds, should be paying to keep the parks functioning.

This year, fees have indeed been increasing. After accruing $70 million in maintenance needs, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado raised its car entrance fees by $10 last week, NPR reported, joining more than 100 parks to increase fees this year to finance maintenance and new projects. For many, the price hike was the first since the Great Recession.

Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon national parks all raised their single-car entrance fee by 20 percent this year. The Everglades and Rocky Mountain National Park also raised their annual passes by double-digits, according to AP.

The fees are allocated to pay for infrastructure repairs. Many parks also have elective projects to fund, like refurbishing visitor centers and building educational exhibits.

Despite the fee increases, national parks are a bargain compared to other recreational offerings and there are price breaks for some families.

Under the Every Kid in a Park program launched in September, fourth-graders and their families can get into the parks for free. The White House launched the initiative to boost visitation among students "beginning to learn about the world around them." The program grants all fourth-graders a coupon to enter the park for free. The initiative is planned to be continued into the future, with the eventual goal of expanding access for all children.

Entrance fees are also waived for military personnel, and senior citizens can still get an $10 lifetime pass for all parks.

Parks that collect entrance fees keep 80 percent of revenue, and 20 percent is distributed to other parks that do not collect fees.
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