Active-duty military personnel and their dependents will soon be able to enter every national park for free as part of an effort to thank service members and their families for the sacrifices they make, the Interior Department announced Tuesday.
An annual pass will be made available to members of the military free of charge beginning Saturday, which is Armed Forces Day. The America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass ordinarily costs $80. It provides access to more than 2,000 national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands.
The initiative is being marked with a Tuesday ceremony at Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown, Va., the site of the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. The park is nestled in a region of Virginia that plays host to all five branches of the military, 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," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call with reporters in advance of the announcement.
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. The passes allow the owner and passengers in a single private vehicle access to sites that charge per vehicle. At sites where entrance fees are charged per-person, it covers the pass owner and three adults age 16 and older.
"We collect about $150 million in fees nationwide, so we don't think that this amount of decrease will be significant to the overall operations of the service," said Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
Military personnel can get the passes at any national park or wildlife refuge that charges an entrance fee by showing their military ID. Each family member will also 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.
The effort compliments the Joining Forces initiative being spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to support military 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," Jill Biden said. "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."
Online: America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass: http://store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis.