by Glenn Nelson
In my op-ed piece for The New York Times this past weekend, I’d originally floated the idea of entrance fee waivers as a means of attracting more people of color to national parks. The waiver would be triggered if a specific National Park Service unit was not reaching a demographics goal of reflecting the general U.S. population. If someone wanted to pull a Rachel Dolezal and claim minority status, it would just have to be written off as the cost of striving for diversity.
The proposal did not make the final edit of my article, but I continue to wonder if the idea, or some form of it, is worth pursuing.
First, I want to stress that raising the number of minorities visiting national parks is a matter of self-preservation not only for the parks, but for environmentalists, conservationists, retailers and the planet and the human race. Everyone. That point got lost in all the outrage. A nonwhite majority in the U.S. is an inevitability. If that new majority does not have a relationship with nature, it may not have the will to deal with climate change and other natural issues.
In that light, dramatic solutions have to be entertained. Time is ticking.
I also want it to be clear that, despite what many of my detractors have commented, I’m not advocating a race-based handout. Neither am I making the assumption that many others did about most people of color not having disposable income. I do concede that class is a factor, though not any more or less than with whites.
The notion of a fee waiver based on race makes a lot of people of color uncomfortable. We’re all tired of being accused of playing the race card to gain handouts. However, I think there is a case to be made for assigning special class status to a group of people who essentially have lost their access to public lands through programming and abuse that have persisted for generations and have, in many cases, become institutionalized.
In the past, racism was experienced in national parks, whether meted out by other visitors or park personnel. White people like to deny this, and get defensive about it, but there is a preponderance of anecdotal evidence. That clearly is not nearly the case today, but many people of color feel a degree of discomfort in national parks that is the function of their low attendance rates. In other words, minorities are so infrequently spotted in national parks, they are gawked at when they are.
Further, every major minority racial group can claim historic negative associations with the American countryside. African Americans have slavery. My people, Japanese Americans, have World War II internment. Half of my daughters’ heritage, the Chinese Americans, have the building of the railroad. Latinos have migrant farmer and Native Americans were swept off what are now public lands.
Maybe entrance-fee waiver can be a form of reparations for U.S. racial minorities, as well as a reminder of what belongs to them as a function of their citizenship. But even that is not the reason I’d consider fee waivers.
People of color should be viewed as new or uncaptured customers who have ingrained reasons for not buying into the NPS (and not because some racial minorities have some kind of intrinsic aversion to outdoor recreation, as some have tried to claim). What does, say, Costco do when it wants to entice people to try a new product? I know a lot of you know, because I’ve seen you prowling the sample stations at lunchtime.
Likewise, fee waivers would be extending a sample – to a potential customer base that has a historical aversion to the product. The waiver only would be triggered by a formula considering demographics at a specific park unit and could be temporary – until the percentage of minority visitors trends strongly upward.
The question is whether this even is feasible.
The National Park Service projects collecting about $180 million in fees during 2015; about 65 percent of that is entrance fees. By law, the NPS retains all fee revenue, and collecting parks keep a minimum of 60 percent, but the revenue must be used to improve the visitor experience. That means fee revenue cannot be used to pay salaries; most of it goes into facilities and deferred maintenance (of which it claimed $11.5 billion last year). About half as much goes to visitor programs and service, a smaller amount to habitat restoration and the smallest for law enforcement.
If all 127 park units that collect fees have to enact the fee waiver, the worst-case scenario for an entire year would be the loss of, say, $25 million (22 percent, larger than the percentage of minorities presumed to be visiting parks), taking into account the people making false claims to the waiver. This total does not include fees collected for campground charges, tour-bus fees and the like. Let’s knock a third of the total to account for the “converted” – those who reject the waiver and pay the fee – as well as the units that do not have to trigger the waiver.
So an entrance-fee waiver program could cost about $17 million. Could retailers and charitable organizations offset some of that loss of revenue? The way the political winds are blowing, it’s doubtful Congress would improve any appropriation to cover the cost of such a program. So the bottom line becomes: Is $17 million a sound investment in the long-term viability of not only public lands, but environmental and health issues that are certain to plague our future generations?
The Miami Dolphins are going to pay decently talented quarterback Ryan Tannehill $19.5 million a year. OPI paid Justin Bieber $12.5 million, when he was 19, to design a line of nail polish. CBS made Les Moonves the tenth-highest paid CEO in 2014 with $29.9 million in cash compensation. Just his stock options, valued at $24.5 million, could cover an entrance-fee waiver program with a few millions left to fill quite a few potholes on national park roads.
Hmmm, Moonves has a son who is half Chinese. I wonder if the CBS executive is a hiker.