Starting on Veterans Day next month, the federal government will grant free access to national parks and other public lands to veterans and Gold Star families, the Department of the Interior said on Wednesday.
“With the utmost respect and gratitude, we are granting veterans and Gold Star families free access to the iconic and treasured lands they fought to protect starting this Veterans Day and every single day thereafter,” Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.
Also Wednesday, the department waived park entrance fees for fifth graders and their families who didn’t get to use a pass intended for fourth-grade students when many national parks were closed in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. The waiver starts immediately and extends through the end of August 2021.
“We have heard from a lot of disappointed families and disappointed fifth graders,” Margaret Everson, counselor to the Interior secretary and head of the National Park Service and the mother of a fifth grader, told USA TODAY.
The fifth-grade passes can be printed from the National Park Service website and should be presented at park entrances. The passes will be honored at wildlife refuges and any other lands or waters managed by the department.
The Every Kid Outdoors program grants access to fourth-grade students and their families to 2,000 sites nationwide from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 every school year. Wednesday’s announcement allows both fourth and fifth graders to take advantage of the entrance fee waiver for the remainder of this school year.
On Nov. 11 the department will permanently waive entrance fees for veterans and Gold Star dependents. The department currently waives the fees for active-duty military service members, and disabled veterans have been able to apply for a lifetime park access pass.
Veterans can use four kinds of ID to access the benefit. Park employees will take Gold Star families at their word, Everson said. Gold Star dependents have a loved one who was killed in military service.
“We have a special place in our heart for these families,” she said.
Veterans Day is also a free day for entrance to national parks for everyone.
National parks have become a popular and lower-risk way for Americans to get outdoors during the pandemic. Anecdotally, Everson said, the parks have seen higher volumes of visitors since they reopened late in the spring. Final attendance data isn’t yet available.
NPS, which was created in 1916, has a decades long-backlog of repair and maintenance needs at its more than 400 sites. Over the summer, Congress passed legislation that would commit $1.9 billion a year for the next five years to America’s public lands infrastructure. President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act in August.
About 70% of the funds will go toward NPS sites, Everson said, which have $12 billion in repair and maintenance needs. The new funds will help fix roads, bridges, trails, parking lots, visitor centers, restrooms, campgrounds and the pipes that supply drinking water and carry away wastewater.
“We’re really proud of this,” Everson said. “It’s the single biggest conservation investment in history.”