The Department of the Interior has decided to carry on the initiative, which grants fourth-graders and their families free passes to the U.S. national parks.
Amid growing fears that the national Every Kid in a Park program would be discontinued, the Department of the Interior has decided to carry on the initiative, which grants fourth-graders and their families free passes to the U.S. national parks. The National Park Service has acknowledged that the program has been renewed for another year.
According to an article from the National Parks Traveler, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made comments during an appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March that suggested free programs like Every Kid in a Park were partially responsible for parks losing money.
“When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth-graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people that actually pay at our front door,” said Zinke.
After being questioned by the committee, Zinke later clarified that he was not necessarily suggesting that programs allowing free parks access be discontinued.
“No, what I’m saying is this: We subsidize and we allow, by design, a lot of people to go through. If you’re in a car and you have a veteran in the car, everyone, whether they’re a veteran or not, is free in that car. Same thing with disabled, same thing with elderly, on passes. Basically, one person with a pass, everyone in that car comes in for free. Whether or not that’s correct, we’re looking at it,” he said.
These comments roused fears among supporters of the free-pass programs. Several organizations and individuals across the country rallied in support of continuing the program. The Outdoors Alliance for Kids, a national collaborative dedicated to connecting youth with the outdoors, delivered over 15,000 comments from member organizations in support of the program to Zinke, including 1,000 handwritten postcards from children.
During a phone interview in May, National Park Service spokesperson Kathy Kupper admitted that it was not clear yet whether the program would be renewed for another year.
“We’re not sure yet if it will be extended. It’s one of those fairly new programs, and we’re not sure if it will stay on in the same way or if the name will change or what’s happening yet,” she said. “We’re in the process of determining if it will be extended and to what extent it will be extended, but as of now we’re not 100 percent sure if it will continue.”
Every Kid in a Park is a national program started by the Obama administration in 2015. According to the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, more than 2 million fourth-graders downloaded the free Every Kid in a Park pass in the program’s first year.
Locally, the Seattle Every Kid in Park Collaborative, launched the same year as the national program, brings together local partners to support and expand upon the national program by organizing field trips and providing experiences that allow youth to engage with the national parks and the outdoors beyond the free park pass they receive in fourth grade.
The decision to renew the program for another year was met with relief by many supporters and national outdoors organizations. In a press release circulated by the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, Paul Sanford, the national director of recreation policy for the Wilderness Society, suggested that the program would not have been continued without the public outcry.
“The Every Kid program would not have been extended without public pressure,” he said in the statement. “When the Administration has proposed actions like massive entrance fee increases that would limit access to our parks, Americans have spoken up, demonstrating that ensuring the opportunity for everyone to access our national parks is an important American value. Now let’s work together to make the program permanent and guarantee that not only this year’s 4th grade class, but all 4th graders will have the same opportunity to experience America’s national parks as a rite of passage.”
The program has been extended for one year, with passes available to new fourth-graders in September 2018; however, legislation is currently pending that could make the program permanent. In 2017, the Every Kid Outdoors Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., respectively. The act would write the free pass for fourth-graders into law, making the program permanent, and extending fourth-graders’ free access to state parks as well as national parks. Last month, the legislation passed out of the Natural Resources Committee.
Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, one of the partner organizations that supported the continuation of Every Kid in a Park, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the Department of the Interior will continue the admirable work of this wonderful public-private partnership, and urge Congress to pass legislation to make the program permanent.”