Column: Don't price people out of national parks

FLAGSTAFF - At least once in a lifetime every American should lay eyes on the Grand Canyon, whose brilliant colors and dazzling erosional landscape inspire a kind of planetary patriotism. Stretching 277 miles long and a mile deep, it is perhaps our nation's greatest natural treasure.

If it were part of a credit card commercial, the Grand Canyon would, indeed, be "priceless." In real life, however, the price is posted on a sign at the gate, and in typical American style it's misguided: $25 per car.

Americans pay an ever-expanding roster, varying by region, of flat fees for such things as highway tolls, library cards, school bus rides - and, yes, a chance to glimpse the Grand Canyon. These charges make up what could be called our a la carte cost of living.

Unlike progressive income taxes and scaled property taxes that take into account a person's ability to pay, flat fees are regressive. The more we impose such fees and the higher they climb, the more punitive they are to the nation's poor.

A few days after my visit, the National Park Service announced plans to raise the fee at the Grand Canyon to $30. The NPS also seeks to implement price hikes early next year at 114 other national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Under a formula established by Congress, each national park retains 80 percent of its admission fees, and shares the balance with other parks that do not charge fees. But according to the NPS, the sole reason for charging fees in the first place is that Congress won't allocate funds needed to maintain roads and essential infrastructure at the largest national parks.

How much are we talking about? At Yellowstone, the nation's oldest national park, visitor fees contribute about $4 million annually to repairs and maintenance. That's exactly how much taxpayers paid last year for President Obama's round-trip Christmas flight to Hawaii on Air Force One - in other words, relatively little.

In fact, the total NPS operating budget - covering 401 national parks and preserved spaces - is only about $3 billion. Of that, roughly $180 million comes from visitor fees.

So, rather than raise the admission price at Yellowstone and Yosemite by 50 percent and at the Grand Canyon by 20 percent, as planned, here's what Congress should do. Raise the NPS's government allocation by a lousy 6 percent and eliminate entrance fees entirely. Make a trip to the Grand Canyon as reasonable for all Americans as a visit to, say, the Lincoln Memorial.

Of course the federal government is so dysfunctional in these matters that just this month a senate committee had to draft legislation to repay states the cost of keeping national parks open during all-too-frequent government shutdowns. Arizona stepped up to keep the Grand Canyon accessible during the last shutdown.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called our national parks "the best idea we ever had" - a quote borrowed for the title of the recent PBS series celebrating the park system.

The second best idea would now be for the NPS to cancel proposed fee increases and for Congress to make our sacred public spaces free and equally accessible to all Americans.