Active-Duty Military Personnel Given Free Access to National Parks

By Beacon Staff

Active-duty military personnel and their families will soon have free access to national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands year round, officials announced Tuesday.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said members of the military will receive annual passes to more than 2,000 sites across the country, including 55 in Montana, beginning Saturday, Armed Forces Day.

Salazar credited Montana Sen. Jon Tester with initially inspiring the idea. Last year, Tester proposed a bill that would have allowed veterans free lifetime access to national parks and discounted access to active military members.

Active members of the National Guard and Reserves will have access to the free passes this year but not military veterans or retirees. Salazar said the department’s intention is to make the passes permanent and called this “a good first step” in a conference call. Tester followed up by saying he would continue to push for free access for all other non-active military personnel.

“They go off to war and fight for the ability for us to be able to go to these parks and all sorts of other freedoms,” said Tester, who serves on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the subcommittee that oversees funding of the national parks system. “I think it is only appropriate that when they come home, the things they fought for around the world, they should be able to access the parks.”

There are nearly 2 million men and women currently active in the military, Salazar said. They will receive their pass by showing a military ID.

The free annual passes will cost the government between $2 million and $6 million in lost revenue a year, the National Park Service estimated. Roughly $150 million is collected annually from park fees.

Salazar called the impact from lost fees “minimal,” and noted, “the important thing for us is that we’re honoring the men and women of our military.”

Tester believes the free passes would also help attract more people to national parks and the surrounding communities.

“It’s a great idea, and Sen. Tester, thank you for bringing this idea to us,” Salazar said.

The pass will be accepted at sites managed by the 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.