The U.S. National Park Service is looking to stimulate summer vacations at national parks, starting this weekend.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced earlier this month that entrance fees at 147 national parks and monuments—including the Grand Canyon and Yosemite—will be waived on three weekends this summer. The weekends are June 20 and 21, July 18 and 19, and August 15 and 16.
(Related: U.S. national park guides online.)
"During these tough economic times, our national parks provide opportunities for affordable vacations for families," Salazar said at a news conference at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
"I encourage everyone to visit one of our nation's crown jewels this summer and especially to take advantage of the three free-admission weekends."
Most Americans live less than a day's drive from a national park, Salazar said. Last year national parks attracted more than 275 million visits, generating an estimated U.S. $10.6 billion for local economies and supporting more than 213,000 jobs, he said.
For the Park Service, the free weekends will mean a loss of an estimated half million dollars a day from entrance fees that range from $3 to $25. A total of 147 parks and monuments charge entrance fees. The country's other 244 parks are already free.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokesperson for Salazar, said the lost revenue should be more than offset by an increase in park tourism. Many tour operators, hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and other vendors near national parks will offer other discounts and special promotions on the free-weekend dates, she said.
The waiver applies only to entrance fees and does not affect charges for camping, reservations, tours, or concessions, Salazar said.
Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat representing Montana, applauded the free weekends. Baucus has co-sponsored a bill that would cap park entrance fees at current rates unless approved by Congress. The bill also would limit fees on national forests and other federally managed lands.
"There is nothing better than spending a weekend in Glacier or Yellowstone, and to be able to do it without straining the budget is even better," Baucus said in a statement. "Folks should be able to enjoy our outdoor heritage without going broke."
Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based group that opposes fees on public lands, said Salazar's announcement was an admission that high fees are a deterrent to park visits.
"Twenty, 25 dollars does mean a lot to people," she said.
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