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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Pick One: Free Parks or Conservation, You Can’t Have Both

There is a cognitive dissonance between believing that there is a high intrinsic value to the environment and that the environment should be free.

The National Parks Service (NPS) proposed doubling entrance fees at 17 national parks to help cover needed infrastructure improvements. Despite the impacts of aging infrastructure and heavy visitation, many large conservation groups and environmentalist organizations stand opposed to the proposal. Conservation groups are balking at people paying directly to preserve the environment.

These park fees would amount to $70 for private non-commercial vehicles, up from the current rate of $25 to $30. Motorcyclists, bicyclists, and hikers would also be subject to increased costs. Given the multi-billion dollar backlog documented by the NPS, even this fee hike isn’t enough, so what has Environmentalists so upset?

Consternation among Conservationists

One quick look at the NPS Facebook page or Twitter, and the viewer will find, what has become routine online – a culture of outrage, colored by partisanship. The outrage comes largely in the form of an argument around equity and access.

In this case, conservation groups and mainstream environmental organizations are balking at people paying directly to preserve the environment. Instead, these organizations prefer to burden individuals indirectly through taxes, in the hopes that the government will be a panacea to environmental woe.

In a CNN article, National Parks Conservation Association CEO Theresa Pierno stated,

We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places – protected for all Americans to experience – unaffordable for some families to visit… The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors…The administration just proposed a major cut to the National Park Service budget even as parks struggle with billions of dollars in needed repairs. If the administration wants to support national parks, it needs to walk the walk and work with Congress to address the maintenance backlog.”

By refusing more realistic park fees, conservation groups and environmental organizations like the National Parks Conservation Association are advocating a system that ironically, isn’t sustainable.

Pay to Play Applies to Parks

Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize-winning economist, highlighted how governance of the commons can lead to perverse outcomes, writing, “What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people versus just having somebody in Washington make a rule.” The concept that parks should be free is ignorant of economics and how taxation works.

Ostrom instead advocated Polycentrism, a process by which authority over regulating common resources is vested more among individuals, regional authorities, and local nonprofit organizations, over that of the Federal government.

The concept that parks are free, a concept regularly advanced by conservation groups, is ignorant of economics and how taxation works at best and intentionally mendacious at worse.

The cognitive dissonance of the mainstream conservation movement lies in the two unrelated thoughts that first, there is a high intrinsic value on nature and the environment and second, that the environment should be free – to access, enjoy, and interact with. These two thoughts form a central contradiction that is difficult to address: the role of market values as a means of protecting the environment within the state capitalist system in which we live.

Equity, Access, and Disneyland

The argument made by conservationists, such as Jason Mark, the editor of Sierra Magazine about the cost of parks providing a barrier of entry to those with lower incomes, also denies agency to those same individuals. Accessing parks is the same as accessing Disneyland, in that it requires that an individual or family making a long-term plan, saving, and weighing the opportunity costs of doing something else.

We should change the way we approach these parks.

Because more Americans are inclined to visit theme parks than state parks, that doesn’t mean that these parks should be done away with, only that we should change the way we approach these parks.

The larger concerns of the conservation movement are valid, namely around access and the fact that revenues from these increased fees will be a far cry from the infrastructural cost of repairs in our park system. However, the approach of simply advocating increased indirect taxes or access to a greater slice of the federal budget is the wrong approach.

Some alternatives to increased park fees might include, private-public partnerships by which companies pay for part of a parks’ maintenance to meet their CSR goals and appease consumers. Another option would be moving management of parks to regional land trusts or non-profits that have the funds to manage smaller parks with more minimum maintenance requirements.

However, conservationists need to acknowledge that paying for our parks comes from individuals, either indirectly through taxes or, directly through fees. Either way, we pay. The difference is that, when individuals pay by choice, fees indicate consumer preferences, willingness to pay, and a host of other metrics that give a better indication of which parks require the most resources. Parks that score lower with park visitors might need to rethink their management.

As Terry Anderson, a senior fellow at PERC and The Hoover Institute wrote, “Real change will only come if those of us who use those lands pay for taking care of them…If we actually paid realistic recreation fees, we could be the pipers calling the tune.”

  • Aaron Lloyd White is a graduate from Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies. He currently works in Development and Policy Analysis.