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Free admission: National Park Service waives fees this weekend

On Saturday and Sunday, the National Park Service will not charge entrance fees at 146 national-park sites where visitors normally pay $3 to $25 for admission.

A tourist snaps a photograph of a mountain goat crossing over the trail to Hidden Lake near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park on Wednesday.

Nate Chute/AP

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Attention bargain hunters: Now is your big chance to go to a national park for free.

On Saturday and Sunday, the National Park Service will waive entrance fees at 146 national-park sites that normally charge $3 to $25 for admission. (Another 246 national parks, landmarks, and historic sites are always free.)

Entrance fees were already waived during two stints earlier this year, but this is the only time for free admission during the summer, a prime time for many families to take a trip.

But before you get too carried away, keep in mind that the waived fees do not include everything. You’ll probably still have to pay for camping, for example.

On the other hand, some national-park concessioners (people providing food, lodging, and other services) will join in the discounts. For instance, at the Everglades National Park in Florida, Shark Valley Tram Tours has a “buy one, get one half price” deal for its tours this weekend.

An estimated 286 million people visit America’s national parks each year. Perhaps the highest-profile visitors so far in 2010 are the Obamas, who went to Acadia National Park in Maine last month. During the trip, the first family climbed around Cadillac Mountain, whose summit is the highest point on the East Coast.

Vice President Joe Biden also made a publicized tour of national parklands this summer. He visited both Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks to highlight federal stimulus projects. Those two parks have received $25 million in recovery-act funds to create “jobs and [jump-start] previously-deferred construction and maintenance projects,” according to a White House statement.

“We are certainly benefiting from recovery-act funds,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, according to the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle. “And it is an opportunity to acknowledge that there is a new generation ahead that will be tasked with keeping Yellowstone and other places like it special.”

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Overall, 800 stimulus projects are under way at national parks this summer, the White House says.

Indeed, America’s national parks could benefit from some extra help. As of last fall, there was an estimated $8 billion to $9 billion backlog of necessary maintenance, because of chronic underfunding of the National Park Service.

The national parks have popped up in the news in other ways this year. Here are a few examples:

• Park officials have been poised to respond to any encroachment of oil on national parkland in the wake of the April 20 Gulf oil spill. Oil did wash up on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and crews have worked to collect the oil and attend to oiled wildlife.

• Grizzly bears have been responsible this year for two unrelated fatalities in the Yellowstone area – although both attacks occurred outside park boundaries. Before 2010, the last fatal grizzly attack in the Yellowstone area was in 1986, when a photographer got too close to one of the animals.

• The US Supreme Court essentially ruled in April that an eight-foot-tall cross on a hilltop in the Mojave Desert could stay. The hilltop is surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve. However, less than two weeks later, the cross disappeared. Veterans groups have vowed to rebuild.


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