Trump's Fee Hike Won't Create a Class System in our National Parks - Because There Already is One

Photo by Joecho-16/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Joecho-16/iStock / Getty Images

Many in the outdoor and conservation community have been in a public uproar about the Trump administration’s proposal to raise fees at the most popular National Parks at the most popular visitation times; essentially doubling the price of entry for those visitors. It has been argued that this plan would create a two-tiered class system for park visitation: those who can afford to visit the “Crown Jewel” Parks (Denali, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon, among others) during the times of year when it is convenient and enjoyable to do so, and those who will be relegated to visiting this parks in the off-season, if at all. This argument ignores the glaring fact that there already exists an unaddressed class system in relation to visiting parks – those who can afford to, and those who already cannot. For the latter group, these fee hikes do nothing to either address or exacerbate this inequity, and the latest outrage surrounding the plan only illustrates the outdoor community’s ignorance (at best) or willful disregard (at worst) for this issue, which has existed as long as the parks themselves.

The vast majority of visitors to our national parks are white, middle- or upper-class Americans, and foreign tourists. Low income Americans, and especially people of color in this country, are rarely significantly represented in visitation data, and the price of entry is only one small factor contributing to this divide. In fact, the inequality in representation often remains the same whether the parks charge an entry fee or not. What greater barriers to access are at play here? Consider the following: 

• National Parks are often located a considerable distance from major population centers, with few public transportation options. Those with low incomes and without access to a car would find that the cost, effort, and time required to access these spaces via other avenues makes the idea all but impossible.

• Lodging options at and around National Parks are often very expensive, difficult to secure, or in the case of camping, require a large amount of (usually quite expensive) gear and previous knowledge – all of which create a major barrier to folks without the existing means or know-how. 

• Visiting National Parks takes time, and time off work, which many Americans working minimum or low wage jobs are not provided. Choosing to take a week or more off from work to engage in such a trip would require missing a week or more of wages – unimaginable for a family already barely getting by – and even potentially losing one’s job.

• National Parks are not historically welcoming spaces to people of color, low income families, and those who possess other marginalized identities, and few parks have initiatives in place to intentionally attract these visitors. Indeed, many parks are located in or near communities that are almost entirely white and conservative, and for historically oppressed populations, travelling through these areas can be an intimidating and even traumatizing concept.

These are only a small sample of the many larger systemic factors that keep so many from experiencing the incredible and transcendent beauty of our National Parks. I don’t support the new raised fee plan, because I believe that our National Parks have been underfunded from their conception and that inherent to their creation is the responsibility of our government to adequately resource and protect these natural spaces. But let’s not pretend that raised fees alone would be the deciding factor for so many Americans who have never visited a park, and may never have the opportunity to do so. America’s National Parks are often hailed as the last true democratic spaces, places that truly “belong to everyone.” But the parks are no more egalitarian than the rest of our society. They already function with deep inequity, and I, for one, would like to see a little more uproar about that.


Rachel Gary runs the Instagram account @adventurekidsofcolor and is on a mission to highlight and promote children of color in nature in order to shift the media landscape and make experiencing the outdoors equitable and accessible for all kids.

 Photo courtesy of Rachel Gary

Photo courtesy of Rachel Gary