WASHINGTON, D.C. — A congressional committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would give fourth graders and supervising adults free entry into national parks.
The Every Kid Outdoors Act — co-sponsored by Colorado U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez — is intended to help children learn about nature while giving them exercise.
The bill was part of a package of proposals approved by the House Natural Resources Committee to encourage public access to outdoor recreation at more than 2,000 federal land, water and historic sites.
Another provision of the Every Kid Outdoors Act seeks to promote public and private partnerships between the National Park Service, schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
“It is critical that America’s children have the opportunity to explore the National Parks System so that they can learn about American history and conservation in a way that is not possible within the four walls of a classroom,” Tipson said in a statement.
The bill that now goes to a vote in Congress is supposed to turn a trial effort of the U.S. Department of the Interior into a permanent program.
Since 2015, the Interior Department has given 4th graders and their parents free entry to national parks.
Interior Department officials say the result was about $2 million in increased private donations and free labor from volunteers. The program also provided the incentive for hundreds of public-private partnerships with schools, nonprofit organizations and businesses that support outdoor recreation and education for underprivileged young persons.
The National Park Service reported the program contributed to a record 330 million visits to national parks in 2016 during the agency’s centennial celebration.
The Every Kid Outdoors Act is designed to continue the success of the program.
Colorado has four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
The markup Wednesday by the Natural Resources Committee comes at a time the National Park Service is struggling to erase an $11 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. National Park Service officials report maintenance problems with “roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines, bathrooms and other visitor services.”
Last month they announced they are raising the entry fees at 117 parks to help pay for maintenance. The fees are increasing by $5 to $10 at the parks.
At Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains — one of the nation’s most popular — an annual pass is rising from $60 to $70. Entry fees for private vehicles are increasing from $30 to $35.
Tipton referred to the fees when he said, “Too often, however, economic barriers prevent children and their families from visiting national parks and monuments. The Every Kid Outdoors Act would help solve this disparity by allowing 4th graders of all backgrounds to get outside and learn from these incredible sites for free.”
Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette was another co-sponsor of the bill. After it was introduced on July 11, 2017, she said, “The outdoors is central to Colorado’s way of life and our economy. Today’s fourth graders are tomorrow’s outdoor entrepreneurs and conservationists.”
The bill’s supporters outside of Congress include nonprofit organizations such as Outdoors Alliance For Kids, National Recreation and Park Association, Sierra Club and the YMCA.
Jackie Ostfeld, Chair of Outdoors Alliance For Kids, said after the markup Wednesday, “Today’s kids are spending less time outdoors than any generation in history. We need the Every Kid Outdoors Act to maintain our kids’ connection with nature and to protect public health.”
If the bill succeeds in promoting more donations and partnerships with the National Park Service, it would be a welcome gesture for state and outdoor recreation officials. They accuse the federal government of shortchanging them through the maintenance backlog.
A recent Pew Charitable Trusts study found that eliminating the backlog would create 110,000 jobs nationwide.
In Colorado, more than 35 percent of the land area is public land. State economic planners credit outdoor recreation with generating about $28 billion a year for the economy.