Active-duty military personnel and their families received the keys to a national trove of treasured lands on Tuesday when the Department of the Interior swung open the gates to all national parks in a gesture of appreciation.
As a token of gratitude to America’s service men and women, and at the behest of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar introduced the “America the Beautiful” pass, which grants service members free admission to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, as well as more than 2,000 other National Park Service sites and other public lands across the country – including 55 in Montana.
The pass will be made available to all members of the military and their dependents beginning Saturday, May 19, to commemorate Armed Forces Day.
“They go off to war and fight for us to have the ability to go to these parks and have all sorts of other freedoms, so I think it is only appropriate that when they come home ... they should be able to access these parks,” said Tester, who is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Last year, Tester sponsored a bill that would have given military veterans and retirees lifetime access to national parks.
In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Salazar credited Tester with inspiring the idea, and while the “America the Beautiful” pass is not available to veterans or retirees, it is an important step toward recognizing the sacrifices of military personnel.
“We all recognize that we owe a debt of service to our veterans, and this is a good first step toward honoring those who defend our country,” Salazar said, adding that the pass is available to activated members of the National Guard and Reserves. “As a nation this is the least we can do to show them we are grateful for the sacrifices they make.”
According to Salazar, almost 2 million men and women are currently active in the U.S. military. They can receive their passes, which normally cost $80, by displaying a valid military identification at any national park or wildlife refuge that charges an entrance fee.
National Park Service director Jon Jarvis estimated that lost revenue from the free passes could range from $2 million to $6 million, but that the figure pales in comparison to the $150 million in park fees collected annually – and it’s a small price to pay for the sacrifices of the nation’s service members.
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.
Salazar said he distributed passes Tuesday morning in Norfolk, Va., to a group of grateful service men and women from each of the nation’s five branches of the military. He was pleased to see that the passes feature a photograph of a hiker on a high-alpine trail in Glacier National Park.
“The pass shows a person who is having a great time recreating and hiking at Glacier National Park, so there is a nexus between the actual pass and Montana,” Salazar said.
Tuesday’s announcement followed on the heels of Tester’s introduction of the National Parks Freedom Pass Act, which would make it easier for service members to access the National Park System. He said expanding access to park sites honors the nation’s military members and also benefits communities around National Park Service sites.
“Giving free access to our military men and women and their families is a way to say thank you for their service and sacrifices,” Tester said. “Now the hardworking folks of our military will be able to enjoy places like Glacier and Yellowstone without having to worry about the cost.”
Missoulian Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.