Starting next month, veterans and Gold Star families will be able to visit national parks and other public lands for free, under a new initiative from the Department of the Interior announced on Wednesday.
Active-duty service members and their families are already granted free access to those sites under existing department rules. The new announcement broadens that benefit to more than 20 million more individuals in recognition of their service and sacrifice on behalf of the country.
In a statement, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the move gives all veterans “free access to the iconic and treasured lands they fought to protect.” The policy goes into effect starting on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Bernhardt and other federal officials made the announcement during a ceremony at the Iowa Gold Star Museum, which focuses on the history of the state’s veterans and their families.
“Our veterans and Gold Star Families have made incredible sacrifices to defend our freedoms and our homeland,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. “Ensuring that they are able to enjoy all of the natural wonders of the country that they’ve served is one small way of saying thank you.”
The policy includes admittance to well-known sites like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Interior officials did not provide cost estimates for the move, but said that the policy change will affect about 2,000 public locations across the country. Fees for the sites can range from a few dollars per person to nearly $100 for some weekly and annual passes.
For free access to the sites, veterans will have to present a Department of Defense Identification Card, a Veteran Health Identification Card, a government-issued Veteran ID Card or a state-issued U.S. driver’s license or identification card confirming an individual’s status as a veteran.
Gold Star family members can use similar Defense Department identification cards to verify their status.
National parks officials already run promotions throughout the year to offer free admission to all visitors on certain holidays, including Veterans Day.
While most national parks sites have remained open or re-opened in recent months amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some programs and facilities still have limited access. Parks officials encourage all visitors to check with local parks administrators before traveling to the sites to ensure safe visits.
Bernhardt also announced Wednesday plans to waives entrance fees to national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands for all 5th grade students and their families from now until Aug. 31, 2021. The move was made because many families may not have been able to take advantage of the department’s Every Kid Outdoors Annual 4th Grade Pass program because of pandemic precautions earlier this year.
More information on the fee waivers will be posted on the department’s website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.