National Park Service Fees: Value for the Money or a Barrier to Visitation?


  • David Ostergren
  • Frederic I. Solop
  • Kristi K. Hagen


National Park Service, fees, public attitude, visitors, nonvisitors, Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.


The National Park System (NPS) employs several fee strategies to regulate access and generate operating funds. However, a national debate surrounds many fee issues; the acceptability of the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program (RFDP), whether the value of the benefits matches the fees, the preferred structure for applying fees, and whether fees constitute a barrier to some portion of the American public. This investigation sheds additional light on the fees debate and contributes to the decisions NPS managers must make about fees and fee strategies. The results reported here come from an analysis of data from a national survey sponsored by the NPS Social Science Program. The phone survey of 3,515 people sought to profile the demographics of visitors and nonvisitors, determine visitation rates, assess perceptions of many fee topics, and identify reasons why people do and do not visit the nation’s parks. This analysis reports on a portion of that survey and specifically addresses the RFDP, whether benefits match cost, the fee structure and whether fees represent a barrier.

Significant findings reported in this article include that 1) ninety-five percent of Americans are not familiar with the RFDP and among the five percent of Americans familiar with the RFDP, 94% support the program, 2) eighty percent of visitors who paid to enter a NPS unit think the amount they paid was “just about right” for the value they received, 3) by a two to one margin, Americans support lower entrance fees with additional fees for services utilized rather than one large, all-inclusive entrance fee, 4) ninetytwo percent of Americans prefer that entrance fees stay within the NPS rather than be deposited in the U.S. Treasury, and 5) through factor analysis, entrance fees do not constitute a barrier to more frequent visitation of NPS units but that the total cost of a trip (hotels, food, travel) is perceived to be expensive. When individual expenses are combined into a broader “expense package,” total costs become a barrier to people with smaller household incomes and to individuals with less education.





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