Recently, we shared a story about a proposed entry fee hike at Rocky Mountain National Park (among other National Parks around the country) that would raise the cost of a single-day, single-vehicle entry fee from its current price of $20 per day to up to $70 per day during peak season. Under the proposed changes, park-specific passes could also be purchased at $75 for the year, while the “America the Beautiful” pass (which allows unlimited access to all federal lands) would cost just $80. As you might expect, this proposal was met with a good amount of backlash from members of the Colorado outdoor recreation community, many of whom were worried that higher prices would discourage visitors from coming to the park. Less visitors could mean less tourism dollars spent in surrounding communities, a concern voiced by the mayor of Lyons, Colorado.

Instead of worrying if the fee increase will decrease park traffic (a speculation that no one can seem to agree on), it seems to me that the more pertinent question is first, which pass will people opt for? And second, how will the choice in pass type affect revenue distribution between local parks and those around the country?

If the fee hikes get pushed through, I know what I’ll do the next time I’m at a National Park gate. I’ll buy the all-encompassing “America the Beautiful” pass for $80 and call it a day. If the proposed changes become reality, this option, which also grants access to other federal lands for an entire year, would be just $10 more than a single-day entry. In my mind, it’s common sense. Heck, I’ll probably even purchase it online a couple days before my visit because it’s simply more convenient. If I had to guess, many people would opt to make the same decision I would. After all, the park I’m visiting gets the money either way, right?

Believe it or not, the type of pass people purchase actually matters because revenue from different passes can end up different places. Keep in mind that while gate fees might go directly to the specific park you’re entering, national pass revenues likely go into a pool of money which is then distributed amongst the parks based on other criteria. The most recent information I could find that looked at how this revenue was distributed said that national pass sale revenues go back to the agency that made the sale (Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife, etc.), but made no mention of how these agencies decided where to spend the money. This means that while Rocky Mountain National Park could continue to see a huge amount of visitors, fewer visitors might be paying the standard gate fee—the fee from which the park likely gets the largest cut. It could also be assumed that as more people opt to purchase an annual pass at a flat rate, more people will have an excuse to make repeat visits…they’ve already got the pass, after all. This could bring people to the park on a more regular basis, something that might prove counterproductive to the goal of using greater single-entry fees to compensate for higher maintenance costs.

As much as I love to support efforts to maintain and conserve Rocky Mountain National Park, these proposed changes unfortunately don’t make the single-entry or single park annual pass the smart financial decision. So, will the entry fee hike dissuade me from visiting Rocky Mountain all together? Probably not. Will the hike impact the type of pass I purchase? Yes, I’ll likely go for the annual, all-encompassing “America, the Beautiful Pass”. Could that decision affect the direct revenue that gets allocated to Rocky Mountain? It seems like that’s the case.

How do you think the fee hike will impact national park visitation and funding? Let us know.

*The opinions expressed in this piece are that of the author, not OutThere Colorado.

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