The National Park Service (NPS) announced Wednesday that it will temporarily suspend the collection of entrance fees at all parks that remain open. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a news release. Despite waiving fees, many individual parks have begun to significantly scale down operations, including closing visitor centers and group campgrounds.
The decisioncomes as some rural communities near major national parks are urging visitors to stay away. Earlier this week, the medical director of the local hospital in Moab, Utah, said that “the best thing we could all do is stay at home.” The Southeast Utah Health Department, which includes Moab, issued orders on Monday closing theaters, bars, and restaurants (except for drive-up and take-out services), and prohibited hotels and other lodging facilities from renting rooms to tourists. A spokesperson for Arches National Park, located just outside Moab, could not be reached for comment on the recent announcement.
Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation at Big Bend National Park, in Texas, told Outside that he doesn’t think the announcement will result in bigger crowds at his park. “Since Big Bend is so remote, I don’t think that the entrance fee [waiver] would result in more people coming. People have either planned to come or not,” he says. Before the NPS announcement, Big Bend, which is in the midst of its peak season, closed its entrance stations as part of its local COVID-19 response, effectively waiving entrance fees.
VandenBerg said that Big Bend is fully staffed, though some volunteers have left due to concerns about coronavirus. Employees who would otherwise be working indoors at the visitor center are roving trails and making themselves available to visitors throughout the park. Staff at Saguaro National Park in Arizona are doing the same.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country, never collects an entrance fee. A spokesperson for the park told Outside that they would expect the announcement to affect their numbers “nominally, if at all.” They also confirmed that the park continues to experience visitation numbers roughly on par with its average for this time of year.
Some agree with the decision but take issue with the priorities expressed in the announcement. “The Park Service should be waiving fees, but not to make parks more accessible,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Waiving fees prevents park staff and visitors from having close interactions during this ongoing pandemic. We remain concerned about the health and safety of park staff and visitors, and strongly urge everyone to follow the guidance of public health experts before planning a trip to any park in order to protect themselves and their communities.”
The NPS is urging all visitors to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing, hand washing, and other measures designed to stem the spread of the virus. And anyone planning to go should monitor updates from the agency and announcements from specific parks.