A Modest Proposal: Make the National Parks Free

Eliminating entrance fees probably won’t change the economics behind a park visit—but it just might change how we think and feel about the experience.

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When the National Park Service proposed a major hike to admission fees last fall, the public response was swift and clear: Screw that. The NPS backed off—but not far enough. Fees won’t solve the NPS’s funding crisis, so let’s stop pretending they will. (The $200 million it raises annually is a drop in the agency’s $3 billion annual budget—to say nothing of its $12 billion maintenance backlog.) Instead, we should support the parks more creatively: by making them free.

Why? Because the only way our wild places will stay wild in the long run is if all of us—the last 15 percent of the U.S. population that hasn’t visited a single national park—get to experience their magic, and thus care.

Besides, the entrance fee is just a blip of the total cost of a visit. Add travel, meals, gear, time off, etc., and admission fees are negligible. Luckily, humans aren’t rational—especially when it comes to free stuff.

The science is clear: In our brains, zero is a special number. In a 2007 paper, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his co-authors wrote, “People appear to act as if zero pricing of a good not only decreases its cost, but also adds to its benefits.” “Free” also seems to activate a part of our brain that’s cued into social norms around sharing and community.

There’s a sense of invitation that emerges when we remove the financial gate in front of the crown jewels of our wilderness system. It’s the difference in tone between being welcomed as a beloved guest and being accommodated as a paying customer. With doors flung wide open, the message is: Come. This is your home, your place. You belong here. Without a fixed price at the entrance, more people can start to understand the true value of a national park experience: priceless. 

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