There is currently a Proposition in California to add an $18 surcharge to motor vehicle registration. This fee would establish a trust for our state parks and help rescue them from recent financial hardship. Over the past year, many California parks closed for long periods of time, cut staff and reduced services. All payers of the fee would receive free day-use admission to the parks thereafter (You’d still pay for camping overnight). I have spent a great deal of time fishing and camping in our state parks and love them dearly. Paying $18 for a year pass would easily benefit my wallet since a standard day-use fee is between $5 and $15 a pop. Objective projections predict that such a measure will create a steady income stream of about 250 million dollars annually for state parks, eliminating the recent financial straits.
Yet, I won’t support it.
Supporters lead with “How can you say such a thing? Our parks are in peril!” Fine, but let’s be a little smarter than just slapping a fee on all cars. These are the Tea Party “Socialism!” battle cries that—once you squeak past the disconnect with history (/reality)—hold a bit of water. Again, where is the logic that car owners should fund parks? Don’t paint with a broad brush and call it a day. Why not increase usage fees on out of state cars, expand concessions and partner more with businesses to provide services?
The government does have a role to play in a some non-essential social services, and parks are one of them. Forces of the market exclude business from managing them entirely; competition should be used to determine the participating services (concessions, retail, lodging, waste management, etc) of parks, not the face of it. An actor without a profit motive is needed to keep parks as they are ultimately intended: simple. (“Yellowstone Park, brought to you by Viagra”) But just because the government is best qualified, doesn’t mean that funding should take on similar structures as essential social services like law enforcement and roads. For those, we all pay into the pot because their value extends far beyond the immediate dollar investment and contribute to a greater standard of living for everyone, despite usage.
So supporting parks feels good and $18 isn’t going to break the bank. Yet the greater issue is that too much of our political action is wrought with these sorts of non sequiturs in developing a means to an end. Do I support maintaining our park system? Without hesitation. But why are we saying: “If you drive a car, you pay for them.” It feels approximately correct: someone driving a car puts a strain on the environment, though why not focus on cigarettes, fuel usage, non-biodegradable plastics, oil changes, hunting and going to the bathroom? They all negatively affect the environment too. Or the converse: why doesn’t owning a car mean you pay $18 towards other public services that are painfully underfunded? (like education)
Those that show up to the park’s gates should be paying the cost, whatever it may be, to the park directly. When we allow for these blurry conclusions on how these initiatives are paid for, we further muddy government’s roles and mandates. It doesn’t make sense that the DMV is collecting the park system’s money. We should never let a piece of legislation’s ends justify their means, no matter how close the issue is to our heart.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at