On a perfect August day, $10 bought James Robertson, wife Sarah and two grandchildren a breathtaking view across the Blue Ridge mountains.
The retired painting contractor from Victoria, Va., didn’t mind that the fee was double the $5 charged last year to enter the 105-mile Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
“I don’t pay attention to that little $10 thing,” he said as his grandchildren, ages 6 and 8, scrambled up a jagged rock for a better vantage point.
Others, it seems, share his view. Despite the doubling of entry fees in many national parks, the number of visitors to the 374 federal parks, monuments and historic sites during the first half of the year is up nearly 5 percent over last year.
Tim Stone, fee program manager for the National Park Service, said more than 112 million people visited national parks this year through June, an increase of 5.3 million over the same period last year. The figures include visitors to more than 200 free sites, but some of the biggest jumps in attendance are at parks where fees have risen.
For example, the number of visitors at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is up 15 percent this year. A 13-percent increase was recorded at the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The fees at both parks rose from $2 last year to $5 this year for individuals and from $5 to $10 for a car carrying two or more people.
Congress approved the higher fees, earmarking much of the money for park repairs and improvements.
Attendance is down at three of the best-known and most expensive scenic parks in the West - Yosemite (13 percent), Yellowstone (5 percent) and the Grand Canyon (3 percent). But Park Service officials say the drop-off is due to a decrease in foreign visitors, not the fees, which jumped from $10 to $20 per carload.
Stone explained that travel agents and European tour operators, who make arrangements six months in advance, were reluctant to book customers at Yosemite because of last winter’s floods. About 15 percent of the 275 million park visitors annually are foreigners, according to the Park Service.
Attendance was also hurt because flooding closed the park for more than two months at the beginning of the year, although that happened when the number of visitors is traditionally low because of the weather.
Stone said he thinks the severe winter may have held down advance bookings at Yellowstone as well.
“Fees aren’t going to affect visitation at destination parks,” Stone said. “If you’re going to a national park, a handful of dollars is not going to affect your visit.”
Gary Machlis, a sociology professor at the University of Idaho who is examining public attitudes about park fees, says most people are willing to pay a little more if the fees are clearly explained and fair and if most of the money returns to the park where it is collected.
“The majority of visitors support the new fees as long as they meet these conditions,” he said in an interview.
Visitors to Shenandoah, a scenic ribbon through the Blue Ridge Mountains about 70 miles from Washington, said the higher fees would not deter them.
“We can’t complain. It’s still a bargain,” said Stan Krev of Cleveland, who was visiting with his wife, Jan, and their four children.
Tom DeRose of Greenfield, Mass., who climbed with his wife, Carol, to the park’s highest point, agreed.
“What can you buy for $10 nowadays?” he asked.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PARKS AT A GLANCE The cost to enter national parks and the increase or decrease in the number of visitors in the first six months of 1997: Total - 112 million visitors through June, up nearly 5 percent from the same period last year. The annual Golden Eagle pass, which a family can use at all parks, doubled in price to $50. Big gains - Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona; 15 percent increase in visitors; Badlands National Park, South Dakota, 13 percent increase. The fee in both parks is $10 per carload, up from $5 last year. Big drops - Yosemite National Park in California, down 13 percent; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, down 5 percent. The fee in both parks is $20 per carload, up from $10 last year. Source: National Park Service