Earlier this week, the law permitting loaded firearms in National Parks went into effect. In order to force it through, the bill had been attached as an amendment to the unrelated credit card reform bill. The new law repeals the Reagan-era practice of allowance of guns in parks, as long as they were unloaded and stored.
There are some obvious concerns about the enforcement of poaching laws and general safety.
But what concerns me most about guns in parks is the chilling effect it will have on visitor management.
If someone is packing heat, fellow visitors will be less likely to engage in friendly reminders or report when that person is damaging or stealing park resources.
Even more to the point, unarmed interpretative park rangers will be more reluctant to confront—or even make contact with—someone who is armed. I’ve personally seen this happen several times while doing ride-alongs with rangers in BLM-managed national monuments and have asked park service rangers about it too.
There’s no reason to need loaded guns in national parks, but there are many reasons to keep them out.
When someone hears about my national park quest, they often ask me if I’ve visited a particular place that they have enjoyed. As often as not, the location they mention is not part of the National Park System.
That’s not particularly surprising. There are a wide variety of land management agencies at the national, state, and local level—each of which have different purposes, rules, and fees. Unless you’re really paying attention, it’s easy to get confused.
If you’re inclined to buy an annual park pass—which I hope you’ll consider doing—it’s important to understand what you’re getting. I’m using metro Phoenix as the example here, so your local passes may vary.
So in the interest of clarity, here’s a quick rundown:
This includes just the 10 or so regional parks in Maricopa County, Arizona. The big question is whether or not you’ll be boating at Lake Pleasant—there’s one annual pass for the lake, and a separate one for the rest of the parks. Other counties or metro areas may or may not have their own park systems and annual passes.
This includes the state parks that are still open. Again, you’ll need to decide if you’ll be doing a lot of boating. The standard pass doesn’t include the river parks on weekends (Friday-Sunday) or holidays, while the premier pass does. All states have a state park system, but their rules for annual passes varies.
This includes state trust lands (which are not considered public lands) and is actually a permit, so be sure to read the fine print as they include some important restrictions. You won’t find any visitor services here. Most Western states have their own systems of state trust lands; their primary purpose is not recreation, so don’t expect park-like amenities or rules.
This includes National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands where you pay an entrance fee. If it has the word “national” in the name of the area, it probably fits under this heading. There’s a single pass called the America the Beautiful: the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that is supposed to cover entrance fees for all of these.
A very important note here. Some National Forests, including several in Arizona, now exclude some very popular fee areas from being covered by this pass. They call some of these sites with “enhanced amenities” and others are technically operated by a private permittee or concessionaire, but you and I might not notice the difference. Yes, this is total bullshit that’s still a better-than-nothing attempt to deal with the inadequate budgets Congress appropriates for our public lands. These areas also often have their own local Forest pass (Tonto Pass, Red Rock Pass or Grand Red Rock Pass, and the Coronado Pass are Arizona examples) with daily and annual options which vary with each national forest.
You can also get a highly reduced or free pass if you are:
After our wedding, Kim and I took a roadtrip across the South to visit a bunch of national parks as part of our quest. I commented last month that one of the benefits of our quest was that it brought us to see some really cool places that we otherwise wouldn’t have.
One of those pleasant surprises was the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site in Atlanta. The park seeks to preserve important pieces of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta where King grew up and lived. We took the tour of the King Birth Home, checked out the Historic Fire Station No 6, and the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Those were certainly cool to see, but the visitor center and the King Center (along with the Tomb) were definitely the unexpected surprises of the visit. The visitor center had some very moving displays and multimedia related to both King’s work and social movements in general. The King Center displayed some of King’s personal affects, including such gems as his Nobel Peace Prize and personal bible.
It’s great that the National Park Service has been able to preserve this important history. If you’re near Atlanta, you should really take some time to see it.
For the ninth or tenth straight year, Kim and I bought an America the Beautiful Pass (or its predecessors, the National Parks Passport and Golden Eagle Passport). For $80 a year, it’ll get you and your family into every National Park unit and the other federal land management agency lands for free. Given the fabulous list of places that includes, it’s an incredible steal.
Most years, it pays for itself early in a roadtrip. This winter, it only saved us $8. Vicksburg National Military Park, of the 11 total national parks we visited, was the only one1 that charged an entrance fee. Unlike the majority of sites in the West, we’ve noticed that Southern units rarely charge an entrance fee. Even so, we’ll probably break even later this year.
In addition to the regular America the Beautiful pass, there’s also an America the Beautiful Senior Pass, an America the Beautiful Access Pass, and an America the Beautiful Volunteer Pass.
The Senior pass, formerly called the Golden Age Passport, is a one-time $10 (now) $803 fee and covers US citizens ages 62 and up. That’s quite a deal. The Access pass, formerly called the Golden Access Passport, is an even better deal – it’s free for anyone with a permanent disability. Mind you, these passes cover the entrance fee for you (and your family) into any national park for rest of your life. The Volunteer Pass, however, is awarded only after 500 2502 cumulative hours of volunteer work and is good for a single year from that date.
Now, I realize that many seniors and people with disabilities may have limited and/or fixed incomes which make it difficult to enjoy our national treasures. But at the same time, we’re not asking for income tax returns at the entrance station—if your drivers license says you’re 62, you get a lifetime pass…even if you’re Warren Buffett. I understand that getting seniors to the parks is a laudable goal—and that as a voting block, they could be particularly helpful in ensuring adequate park funding.
But I think we’re missing the real opportunity here: getting young kids to the parks. Instead (or rather, in addition to) the existing passes, there should be a youth pass. It should be valid until the age of eighteen and function similarly to the senior pass.
We should call it the Golden Eaglet Pass.
Yes, kids under the age of 16 are already admitted for free. But that’s misleading. If you’re driving to a place like, say, Grand Canyon National Park, you’re going to pay $25 $30 a carload whether or not it contains a 12-year old. But if grandpa was asleep in the back seat, you’d get the entire car in for free.
There are already very compelling reasons for why we need to get kids outside more often – whether it’s combating obesity, connecting them with the wonder of the natural world, or giving them a chance to learn first-hand about our natural and cultural heritage. We all know and agree that it’s important.
We also need them to become lifelong advocates for public lands, helping to ensure that the special places they visited remain for their own children to experience. Providing an incentive for families to make sure that happens is a good idea.
As a final comment, I’d also love to see the volunteer pass dramatically lower its service hours requirement. 500 250 volunteer hours is roughly an entire quarter of full-time work and would be valued at more than $10,000 $5,000. That’s a ridiculously high amount of volunteer time for an $80 pass and essentially ensures that only retirees will meet the requirement in a single year (and hell, they can already get a lifetime pass for $80). That total should be dropped to 50 hours or less. After all we should be doing a better job of rewarding those who donate their time, energy and skill to protecting and interpreting our special places that help make this country great.
Note: You can buy any of these passes (well, except for the youth pass I’ve proposed) at virtually any National Park Service unit that charges a fee, or basically any federal fee area that’s staffed. By the way, the unit at which you buy it receives an additional cut of the fee, so keep that in mind. In the past, we’ve also seen them for sale at REI.
Also, most federal sites have “fee-free days” several weekends a year.
[back to post] Poverty Point National Monument, while technically a unit of the National Park System, is owned and run by the State of Louisiana and charged its own $2/person entrance fee that’s not covered by the pass.
[back to post] The Volunteer Pass requirements have been dropped to 250 hours, which is still far too high.
[back to post] The National Parks Centennial Act passed in early 2017 is raising the price for the Senior Pass from $10 to $80 for the lifetime pass. Still an amazing deal.