Staffing the Park Gates

Eight years ago I blogged about a trip up to Haleakala National Park in Maui, noticing that at 9:45AM the National Park Service didn’t bother staffing the entry gate, thus not collecting the entry fee.  Presumably the variable cost of the staff time wasn’t covered by the few entrants at that early hour.  

This week we made the same trip at the same early arrival time — but now the gate was staffed and a Park Service attendant collected entry fees.  The reason for the change was apparent when we reached the summit:  Even though it was early, the parking lot was nearly full. Apparently the Park Service realized that demand for entry early in the day had increased, and that it is now worthwhile (marginal revenue exceeds the marginal cost of the attendant’s time) to staff the gate earlier than before. Nice to see the federal government reacting to economic incentives!


Pretty big leap to assume that the Federal Government was reacting to economic incentives.

I would bet it was just as likely that the guy taking money was the nephew of a public service member that wanted a job early that would count towards his pension.


Or perhaps it's just choices of how to use a fixed number of staff. That is, if no one's out sick, and there's nothing more urgent that needs to be done, someone sits at the entrance gate. So on any given day, you have an X% chance that someone will be at the gate to collect entry fees.


We were at Haleakala just over one year ago. We learned from some friends who used to live on Maui that sunrise is a very popular time at the park, but sunset is nearly void of tourists. Rather than get my kids up way before dawn to watch the sunrise, we went later in the day and made it to the top about 30 minutes before sunset. No one was at the entry gate collecting the entry fee, but there was an automated machine off to the side of the road that would spit out a receipt if you fed it the required $10 (I think that was the fee) if you were honest enough to stop. I was, by the way.


Bonus Freakonomics Member Points if you have a picture of the automated machine.


An automated gate with a card/cash pay system (like any parking garage) would be in place if the government were truly following sound economic incentives.

Robert Ayers

It used to be the case that park entrance staffing was a cost of the particular park, but all the entrance fees flowed directly to Washington. Hence it was not in the interest of the individual park to collect the fees. Several years ago (IIRC), the NPS changed the system to split the entrance fees with the parks, thus creating an incentive for the park to collect them.


Haven't been to Yosemite for a while, but they used to check for payment entering and leaving. If you happend to enter at midnight when no one was there, they'd be glad to take your money on the way out. Time one person's 8 hour shift correctly and you'd probalby get 90%. Then figure out if the additional 10% was worth the aditional head count. Answer probably changes between winter and summer, weekday and weekend.

Dave F.

Incidentally, this reminds me of airport security.

The shoe bomber didn't kill a single soul, but if you add up the combined minutes spent from the millions of people who take their show off every year, he has killed several. Most airport security has a similar dynamic. On the other hand, if you stopped checking you would be inviting lots more shoe bombers.


9:45 is not early for the park. 3:30-7:00 is when they get the big rush of people there to see the sun rise. If you haven't done it it is completely worth the early rise.

Musandam Dibba

Thanks for apparently the Park Service realized that demand for entry early in the day had increased.... Thanks