Service members and their families will be able to enter all of America’s national parks free of charge for a year under an initiative announced Tuesday.
The America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass, which normally costs $80, will become available to service members and their dependents on Armed Forces Day, May 19.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement Tuesday morning, along with National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, at a ceremony at Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown, Va., the site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. The area surrounding the park hosts installations from all the military services, including the world’s largest naval base.
“I think when one goes into Virginia and you see all the sites, the Yorktown battlefield and the whole history of the country, it’s important that those who have fought in the tradition of making sure the nation’s democracy and freedom are protected also have access to these wonderful sites there,” Salazar said.
The passes allow the holder and passengers in a single private vehicle access to some 2,000 sites that charge per vehicle. At sites where entrance fees are charged per person, it covers the pass owner and three people aged 16 and older.
The National Park Service estimates that giving away the passes to service members and their families will result in a revenue loss between $2 million and $6 million, but Jarvis said that won’t cause a significant impact on the agency, which collects about $150 million in fees each year.
Military personnel can get the passes at any national park or wildlife refuge that charges an entrance fee by showing their military ID. Family members also will be able to obtain their own pass, even if the service member is deployed or if they are traveling separately.
The pass will be accepted at National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps sites that charge entrance or standard amenity fees.
The free pass will be made available for activated members of the National Guard and reserves, but not for military veterans or retirees, whom Jarvis said have other opportunities for free or reduced admission, such as the National Park Service’s “Access Pass” or a seniors pass for those 62 and older.
Jarvis, a 40-year Park Service employee, said that while the free passes are a first, they are representative of the parks’ history with the military, which dates back to the Buffalo Soldiers’ battles with Native Americans in the mid-1800s and the recruitment of former military members to serve as park rangers under the first NPS director, Stephen T. Mather. The Park Service maintains many military historical sites from Gettysburg to Pearl Harbor, and in World War II even closed some parks, such as Mount Rainier in Washington state, to all but active military members, he said.
Right after World War II, the Park Service invested heavily in infrastructure to prepare the parks for returning service members, Jarvis said. Today’s generation of warriors also deserves a deep connection to the parks, he said.
“From my perspective, it is incredibly important to return this group of returning military members to their national parks,” Jarvis said. “Nothing is more core to the American experience than the national parks. These are places for quiet and contemplation and to reconnect to the American experience. And we don’t want there to be any barriers to that.”
The free pass initiative is part of the “Joining Forces” campaign First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, launched last year to rally Americans around supporting service members and their families.
“Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to our servicemen and women who make great sacrifices to protect our country and preserve our freedom,” Dr. Biden said in a White House statement. “In recognition of their service, we are so pleased to be putting out a welcome mat for our military families at America’s most beautiful and storied sites.”