WASHINGTON - The National Park Service extends free annual park passes far beyond the droves of Pentagon employees who lined up to take advantage of the offer today.
Through its America the Beautiful series, the National Park Service grants complimentary access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, national parks and wildlife refuges to active duty service members and activated Guardsmen and reservists and their families, said Kathy Kupper, National Park Service spokeswoman.
"The park service is just so grateful for the service of the military, so we've been looking for a way to show our gratitude," Kupper said. "It's taken a couple of years to get all the details worked out, but we're honored that we can pay back a little bit."
Service members can get a pass, valued at $80, by showing their military identification card. Family members can obtain their own passes, even if the service member is deployed or if they are traveling separately, Kupper explained.
A pass covers entry and standard amenity fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas, or up to four adults at sites that charge per person. Children age 15 or under are admitted free. Wounded warriors or any American citizen with a disability can get a free lifetime pass to all national parks.
A 25-year National Park Service employee, Kupper recalled the organization's decades-long military ties, specifically to the Army, which oversaw national parks between the 1876 establishment of Yellowstone, the first national park, and the 1916 stand-up of NPS.
"For about 40 years, you had the U.S. Army, particularly the U.S. Cavalry, including Buffalo Soldiers, care for our first national parks," Kupper said. "Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon all had roads set up, built, with trails established and wildlife protected ... by the U.S. Army."
Kupper added that even park ranger uniforms are inspired by the cavalry uniform, symbolizing the enduring bond.
"Many national parks were set aside for use strictly by military, whether for rest and relaxation trips ... or for training," the spokeswoman said, adding that through the years, the parks have been home to some of America's most iconic images of freedom.
"Our service members are fighting to protect our freedoms and a lot of them are manifested in these symbols like the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore -- all sites cared for by the Park Service," Kupper said. "These places inspire the military and remind them what they're fighting for so where better for them and their families to visit?"