(This story is by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling of the Valley News, in which it first appeared Aug. 4, 2017.)
WOODSTOCK — A stampede of seniors has descended upon America’s national parks, many of them hoping to buy a $10 lifetime pass before an act of Congress causes the cost to spike to $80 later this month.
“Many sites are running out of passes and there’s a high demand,” said Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. “Online orders are generally 100 a day. Right now, it’s 11,000 a day.”
The senior pass, available to people 62 and older, allows the passholder and a carload of companions to enter any of 2,000 sites throughout the country, including the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock.
Christina Marts, the deputy superintendent for the park and the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire, said “people are scurrying to get their passes” by Aug. 27, the last day the pass can be purchased at its current price.
“Annually, the two parks sell just over 1,200 senior passes a year,” she said. “This year, we’re already well over 2,000.”
The run caused both locations to temporarily run out of passes, Marts said, though a resupply had allowed them both to stock back up as of Thursday afternoon.
She recommended that people call Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller at 802-457-3368, ext. 222, to make sure they’re in stock before visiting specifically to get a pass.
But she said many people who come to buy a pass are taking a more full advantage of the visit.
“We are certainly seeing an increase in visitation, and we certainly hope that as people are coming to buy their passes that they take an opportunity to enjoy all the parks have to offer and make a day of it,” she said.
The increase, though dramatic, is the first hike in more than 20 years. When Congress first established the senior pass in 1974, they were free, and remained that way until 1994, when the $10 price tag was fixed.
Kupper said the national agency just printed 400,000 more passes to meet demand, and that she expects sales to hit 2.5 million passes, more than triple the usual annual total of about 800,000.
According to the Census Bureau, there are about 48 million people age 65 or older in the country, where the 417 national parks drew 320 million visitors last year.
Though the run, and the price bump, will increase revenue for the National Park Service as a whole, the Upper Valley’s two locations actually may take a loss, because the legislative change, which Congress approved in December, comes with a restructuring of how the money is allocated.
Admission revenues make up just a small percentage of each park’s budget, but they currently are retained within the park in which they were generated.
Under the change, Marts said, all admission revenues will instead go to a national endowment, with individual parks invited to apply for dollars for specific projects. She expressed confidence that the end result would benefit the local parks, but the specifics of the arrangement have yet to be worked out.
“We haven’t seen guidance of how the endowment fund is going to be managed,” Marts said. “We’ll certainly track the details as those develop.”
Kupper said the increase in revenues will help to close a chronic gap between the needs and revenues of the national parks.
“There is a big maintenance backlog,” she said. “So many have infrastructure you don’t think about, sewer systems and electric systems.”
The $80 new price tag on the senior pass will bring it into alignment with the “America the Beautiful” annual passes on sale to National Park-goers of all ages, but after the switchover, there will be a purchasing option that will lessen the impact of the cost increase.
Seniors also will be able to buy an annual senior pass for $20. If they accumulate four $20 passes, they can trade them in for a lifetime senior pass at no additional charge.
Kupper said that, because of the order backlogs, those who purchase a pass online might not get their pass in the mail for months, but will be able to use their receipt to gain admission during the interim.
Though federal law prohibits the National Park Service from recording demographic data on its visitors, the conventional wisdom is that seniors — who often have recreational time and an innate appreciation of nature — make up a majority of the visitors to the sites.
Marts said visitors can challenge themselves on rugged hikes, but the parks also work to include programming for people of different levels of physical ability.
“At Marsh Billings we offer a variety of tours that include the historic home of George Perkins Marsh and Frederick Billings, the mansion and a wonderful collection of artwork,” Marts said.