Park service looks at benefits of free-entrance program

WASHINGTON — The National Park Service will lose up to $6 million and gain modest benefits in return for offering free entrance to Yosemite and other parks this summer, officials now believe.

A temporary fee waiver means visitors to Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and other major parks avoid the usual $20 entrance fee today and Sunday. Earlier free- entrance weekends boosted visitation at some but not all parks.

"With free entrance, more people are coming," Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said Friday.

Even without the free entrance, many parks are busier than they were last year.

In July, which included one free weekend, 608,567 visitors came to Yosemite. In July 2008, which did not have a free weekend, Yosemite recorded 559,727 visitors. Similarly, visits to Yosemite in June that included one free weekend reached 501,588, up from 490,270 visitors in June 2008.

"We're definitely seeing some spikes on those free weekends," added Adrienne Freeman, spokeswoman for nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

During the Sequoia and Kings Canyon free-entrance weekend in July, visits jumped 24 percent compared with the corresponding weekend in July 2008. Overall, Sequoia and Kings Canyon saw 281,450 visitors in July, compared with 265,903 last July.

"Every month of the year, we've been seeing an increase in the number of visitors," Freeman said.

This will be the third and final weekend for the summer fee waiver, billed by the park service as a tourism boost and goodwill gesture during hard economic times.

President Barack Obama will showcase the program this weekend with visits to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks.

Forgoing the entrance fees costs the park service between $750,000 and $1 million a day. For the six days that the fee waiver will have been in effect on weekends in June, July and August, the lost revenue adds up to between $4.5 million and $6 million.

Free and, sometimes, fewer

In return, park service officials sought more visitors and concessionaires hoped to do more business.

Agency officials say the park service has accrued other benefits, including what the study called "significant media interest," but the program hasn't always worked out as planned.

Of the 391 units in the park service, 147 charge entrance fees. Managers in 39 of these parks responded to a survey asking about their experiences during the third weekend of June, when the free- entrance experiment began.

Twenty-two of the parks reported more visitors during the June free weekend than the weekends before and after. Five parks, including Olympic National Park, reported fewer visitors on the free weekend compared with the weekends before and after. Twelve reported visits on the free weekend were higher than only one of the weekends before or after.

"The (free entrance) effect varies widely and can be overshadowed by other factors," the park service analysis states.

Yosemite visit numbers were not available for individual weekends.

Local weather, gasoline prices and competing recreational opportunities could influence individual park visits, park service analysts noted. For instance, they suggested that visitor interest in Joshua Tree National Park fell in late June after temperatures spiked to nearly 100 degrees.

The larger context includes an overall increase in visits this year to state and national parks and private campgrounds.

Yosemite has seen more visitors coming from the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding region, Cobb said.

About two-thirds of park concessionaires informally polled nationwide saw no sales increase during the free weekend in June. About one-third of the concessionaires polled "indicated some potentially attributable increase in patronage and/or sales," the study states.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.