Just weeks after announcing a program to make two years of community college free to all, President Obama has doubled down on "free" by introducing a plan to give all fourth-graders and their families a year of free access to all national parks. The "Every Kid in a Park" initiative, introduced to the public in Chicago as President Obama announced three new national parks, will begin in September as part of the centennial celebration of the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016. But unlike some proposals which include cost estimates or even a Congressional Budget Office analysis, the best the White House could do in this case was express a hope that the plan would break even.
Christy Goldfuss, a senior advisor with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, explained the details of the program during a press opportunity with White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz on Air Force One on the way to Chicago. After her presentation, Goldfuss was asked about the cost:
Q So the costs -- do you know what the estimated cost is for this?
MS. GOLDFUSS: So unfortunately, the Park Service and the other federal land management agencies have looked at the numbers, and we can’t take into account the increase in visitation around the centennial and inviting all Americans. So they have some estimates but believe that the overall increase in visitation will make up for those losses, and that the community benefit around each of these federal lands in terms of economic value of going to restaurants and going to hotels will make up for that as well.
Q Do you think it’s going to be a net-zero? That there will be no --
MS. GOLDFUSS: That’s what we’re hoping, yes.
Recent census data indicates there are about four million fourth-graders in the United States. The National Park Service offers an annual America the Beautiful pass for $80 that permits families (or all the occupants of a passenger vehicle) entrance to "2,000 recreation areas managed by five Federal agencies." Four million passes at $80 each creates a potential "cost" in waived fees of $320 million assuming 100 percent participation in the program, obviously an unlikely scenario. Total recreational fees in 2014 were only $185 million, and the 2016 estimate from the National Park Service is $192 million, the Every Kid in a Park program notwithstanding.
Per Christy Goldfuss, the National Park Service hopes to maintain its revenue level based on increased visits due to the NPS centennial and "inviting all Americans." Given that there's no easy way to determine what percentage of previous paying pass-holders will qualify for a free pass this year, lost revenue is difficult to predict. Since the exact financial impact of the change is unknown, the National Park Service is simply left to hope.