Parks: Welcome, Fourth Graders

If you have a fourth grader and like visiting national parks, this might be the year to plan a road trip. A national program that began Sept. 1 offers all of the nation’s fourth graders, and their families, passes into national parks and lands — for free.

The pass gets registered fourth graders, up to three adults, and the rest of the (underage) family in, just like an annual pass would.

There are two ways to get the pass, said Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Assistant Director Nikki Hinds. A fourth grader can apply online (which Hinds said is easy) and print out the paper voucher. That voucher gets them into the park. When they get to a park, they can change it for the more durable plastic pass if they wish — the only catch is that the fourth grader him or herself has to be present. Hinds has several hundred plastic passes she would love to run out of, she said.

The other way for kids to get the passes is for their fourth grade teacher to go to the website and fill out information. The teacher can then print the paper vouchers for each student, which can be switched for the plastic passes via the same process. Hinds said she plans to reach out to fourth grade teachers locally after the cruise ship season ends.

The program, started at the White House, is supported by eight agencies — the U.S. Department of the Interior (which includes the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nationally, all the agencies together have a goal of getting 1 million fourth graders signed up, said Alaska Region Interpretation and Conservation Education Program Manager Annette Heckart. The Forest Service has set a national goal of signing up 50,000 kids; Alaskan Forest Service employees “will work towards contributing to the national Forest Service goal,” she wrote in an email.

“We’re quite excited to have the program,” said Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary. “We’re hoping it brings more Juneau kids out to the visitor center… we welcome it.”

For NOAA in Alaska, Juneau’s Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute is already free and open to the public; so is the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center. Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Reserve is also participating in the program, said NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle.

Sept. 25 of this year through April, there is no fee at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center; the fee will increase from $3 per person to $5 per person come May 1. It would be great for local families to come get the plastic passes before next year’s summer crowds arrive, Hinds said.

In the winter, the Visitor Center is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Juneau Ranger District office also has passes.

“I would love to see all the fourth graders coming in with their vouchers, getting their pass,” Hinds said.

The passes are for Sept. 1 of this year until Aug. 31 of next. September 2016, the plan is to start the program anew with a new group of fourth graders.

The website is

• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Assistant Director Nikki Hinds said the center’s Fall Fun Fest, normally on Halloween weekend, will be Nov. 14 this year. That, she said, could be a good time for kids to bring their vouchers, though they can do so anytime the center is open.

The glacier’s kids corner — the corner dedicated to coloring, books, puppets, and kids activities — will be set up by mid-October, she said.

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