By Brady Jones - Contributor

When I was ten years old, the entire fourth grade from my elementary school spent a week at a camp near Olympic National Park in Washington State. We slept in rustic cabins, went on nature hikes, played in the water, learned about the local plants and animals, and thoroughly tested the patience of our teachers. This experience was simply and wonderfully called: Outdoor Education.

Growing up on an island near Seattle, I had plenty of exposure to nature and our national parks. As a result, I developed a love for our planet and a desire to do my part to protect it. I was fortunate to have parents who appreciated the outdoors and had the resources to get out there and experience it. The Outdoor Education was notable for the fact that this was a public school taking the time to close the textbooks and allow students to appreciate our surrounding natural world. It provided this exposure to all students, regardless of the income of their parents. It is a wonderful idea and, looking back, I appreciate what a unique and important experience that really was. Unfortunately, many of our nation’s citizens are not privileged with this access.

The National Park Service proudly announced that 2015 experienced a record number of visitors to the 412 areas under their control. Over 305 million visitors were recorded, which surpassed the previous record established the year before. That number, which is estimated and not exact, sounds very impressive when you consider that the entire population of the United States is just under 310 million. What that number doesn’t account for, however, is how many unique visitors there were. Obviously, many people visited more than once. Moreover, what proportion of these visitors were over the age of 62 and thus eligible for a lifetime pass? What were the income levels of these visitors? How many were from other countries? Unfortunately, this is information that we can’t determine and begs the question: how many of our citizens never visit our National Parks?

Charging an entrance fee to access our natural areas treats nature as something separate from our daily lives. It is given the appearance of being an attraction, rather than something integral to our survival, and becomes divided from the people.

The history of America’s National Parks is littered with good intentions. The Yellowstone Act of 1872 established what is now known as Yellowstone National Park and declared this area as a place “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” When President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916, giving the control of the nation’s parks to the National Park Service, it was with the intention that the government would control all aspects of the parks and “will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This certainly sounds wonderful, however, nothing in those acts of government say anything about ensuring access for all the citizens of those future generations. Entry fees to some of the larger national parks can be as high as $30 simply to enter the park. Coupled with the cost of getting to these sometimes remote areas makes visitation not affordable for many Americans, or they choose to spend their limited income in places they deem more important.

In 2017, Canada will be celebrating the nation’s 150th anniversary. To honor this important milestone, the Canadian government has declared free access to all National Parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas for the entire year. What a perfect idea that is! This year, as America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, it offers a paltry 16 days of free admission. Of those 16 days, only four of them occur during the typical summer vacation period for children. If Canada can do it for one year, why can’t we? If we can do it for one year, why can’t we do it every year? Why does the government insist on creating revenue off of our natural world? 

Of course, the revenue from entrance fees help to offset the enormous costs of operating 84 million acres of park lands. In 2014, the National Park Service recorded approximately $188 million in entrance/amenity fees. It is not announced how much of that figure is from entrance fees alone. Surely the government can find other ways to make up this number without resting the burden on its citizens. Even with eliminating the entrance fee, revenue could still be created from amenities such as camping fees, guided tours and other elective services from the park. Additionally, revenue could continue to be obtained through private donations.

A major theme in the current presidential election is the widening gap between rich and poor. The attention placed on income inequality is important in that it shines a light on the differences in availability for the rich versus the poor. The nation’s poorest citizens are being left further and further behind because they can’t afford equal access to the information or experiences that wealthy Americans can. When it comes to our National Parks, the government has the ability to level the playing field for all citizens. The nation’s National Parks should not be made available only for those who can afford it.

As we rightly focus more of our attention on the concerns of climate change, we need to engage all citizens in an effort to recognize the importance of our natural world. Our National Parks are a unique opportunity for our government to provide, and even encourage, access to nature and to make it so all of our citizens can experience it. When approximately 30% of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or its disastrous effects, we must take drastic action to bring all citizens together in support of our planet.

Charging an entrance fee to access our natural areas treats nature as something separate from our daily lives. It is given the appearance of being an attraction, rather than something integral to our survival, and becomes divided from the people. For those with little money, the entrance fee is an economic barrier and a symbol of the inequality in America. The American government must make preserving our natural world a top priority and encourage people to actively participate in its preservation. Removing the financial barrier to our national parks would be a powerful and symbolic start. 

About Brady // @bradyrjones

Brady Jones is a freelance writer who is passionate about our natural world and hopes to inspire others to take an active role in protecting it. He grew up on Bainbridge Island, a small island near Seattle, and then attended the University of Colorado Boulder where he developed a love for writing and a belief in the power of just a single voice. Brady currently lives in Boulder, Colorado where he enjoys exploring the state’s vast wilderness areas. He spends much of his time hiking, fly fishing and contemplating the mundane.

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