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Obamas taking part in NPS fee-free weekend

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

This weekend marks the third and final opportunity of the summer for families to load up their cars and enter national parks for free — and the First Family is even getting in on the action.

President Barack Obama and his family will visit Yellowstone National Park on Saturday and Grand Canyon National Park on Sunday.

“We're in the mix, people are talking about it, the president and his family deciding to visit a park this weekend really picked us up on our final fee-free weekend of the year,” NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson said.

Initial results indicate the National Park Service's fee-free weekends have been a success.

Olson said data received from 50 of the parks that waived admission fees over the June 20-21 weekend show a spike in visitors.

“Thirty-nine of the 50 parks contacted responded with car or visitor counts ... 56 percent of the parks reported that June weekend visitation was higher than the weekend before and the weekend that followed.”

Normally, 137 national parks charge admission fees. The remaining 244 are free year-round.

The promotion was “a gift to people in tough economic times. It got people thinking about parks, reminding people national parks are a lot closer than you might think,” Olson said.

NPS is of the mind to offer admission-free weekends in the future despite lost revenue, Olson said. The promotion will cost NPS between $4.5 million and $6 million in lost fees, but it introduced “a new group of people to national parks, which is at the top of our list of things to do every day we come to work,” he said.

Affordable vacation options
The National Park Service announced its decision to offer free-admission weekends in early June in an attempt to stimulate summer vacations at national parks.

On June 2, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that entrance fees at national parks and monuments — including the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — will be waived on three weekends — June 20-21, July 18-19 and August 15-16.

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“During these tough economic times, our national parks provide opportunities for affordable vacations for families,” Salazar said at the June news conference at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. “I encourage everyone to visit one of our nation's crown jewels this summer and especially to take advantage of the three free-admission weekends.”

Most Americans live less than a day's drive from a national park, Salazar said. Last year, national parks attracted more than 275 million visits, generating an estimated $10.6 billion for local economies and supporting more than 213,000 jobs, he said.

The waivers apply only to entrance fees and does not affect charges for camping, reservations, tours or concessions, Salazar said.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., applauded the free weekends. Baucus has co-sponsored a bill that would cap park entrance fees at current rates unless approved by Congress. The bill also would limit fees on national forests and other federally managed lands.

"There is nothing better than spending a weekend in Glacier or Yellowstone, and to be able to do it without straining the budget is even better," Baucus said in a statement earlier this summer. "Folks should be able to enjoy our outdoor heritage without going broke."

Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based group that opposes fees on public lands, said Salazar's announcement was an admission that high fees are a deterrent to park visits.

"Twenty, twenty-five dollars does a mean a lot to people," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.