Would you pay $70 to visit a national park? Should you?

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ISLAND IN THE SKY ENTRANCE

Cars are backed up waiting at the entrance station to Island in the Sky, a portion of Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service is hoping a proposed 2018 admission-rate increase at 17 parks will produce enough additional revenue to address some of the mounting deferred maintenance costs threatening the ability of park and monument managers to maintain a high-quality visitor experience.

The proposed rate increases – to $70 for a seven-day private non-commercial vehicle and its passengers during peak season – would more than double the price of entry in some locations. For instance, at Canyonlands National Park in Southeast Utah, the current seven-day entry fee now just $25.

In a press release, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said, “The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration. Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”

But not everyone agrees, and the proposal is generating resistance.

The revenue from the rate increase would be a drop in the bucket, and doesn’t justify limiting access to the parks for low-income and working-class visitors, according to Jackie Ostfeld, associate director with the Sierra Club’s Outdoors Campaign and founder of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids.

“Doing so is an environmental injustice,” she told the Free Press. “It’s a growing issue today. Think about the people in the greater Los Angeles area, where the smog is so bad that a day trip to a national park or monument in nearby mountains is a chance to breathe clean air. Rate increases create a barrier to entry, a barrier to those people, including children.”

Grand Canyon and more

Under the proposal, the fee for motorcycles will jump to $50 per seven-day tour, while bicyclists and pedestrians will be charged $30. Commercial tours will also face peak-season fee hikes. The higher fees apply only during the busiest contiguous five-month period of visitation, usually through the summer.

The 17 parks are the top NPS destinations with the highest-priority needs. They are Grand Canyon in Arizona; Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and Arches in Southeast Utah; Rocky Mountain in Colorado; and Acadia, Denali, Glacier, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

Funds raised from the increase are critical, the proposal states, to improve facilities and infrastructure and to provide an enhanced level of service.

Deferred projects

Deferred maintenance, called DM in agency lingo, is defined by the Park Service as identified activities not performed when scheduled, most often due to funding constraints, and delayed until the future resources can be found.

Jeremy Barnum, a spokesperson for the NPS Public Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., told the Free Press that the highest DM priorities are evaluated every year. “We work to get the most urgent of them funded, but the backlog has remained fairly steady for the past five or six years.”

If implemented, the new pricing structure is projected to bring in $70 million the first year, an increase of 34.3 percent in total entrance-fee revenues over the $199.9 million collected in 2016. Eighty percent of the entry fees will remain at the park where the money is collected. The remaining funds will be applied to other Park Service assets not affected by the proposed increase, including those that do not charge entry fees.

“There are 417 units in the park system and most of them are free. Only 118 sites charge admission,” Barnum told the Free Press. The estimated total cost of backlogged deferred maintenance at all the park units, he said, was $11.3 billion in 2016.

A huge inventory

The National Park Service protects natural, historic, cultural, and recreational sites in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories. According to an NPS Transportation Program fact sheet, the inventory is second only to the Department of Defense in size, with a total of 70,000 facility assets such as visitor centers, lodges, utilities, roads and trails. All of the facility assets are designed to provide the public an enjoyable experience in harmony with resource protection.

Nearly 331 million people visited national parks in 2016, setting a record for the third year in a row, 23.7 million more than the previous year. Half of the visits were in 26 of the system’s superstar destinations such as the Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. According to the Department of the Interior, the parks targeted for the increase collect 70 percent of all entrance fees throughout the country.

Non-recreational business visitations for maintenance and operation, vendor supply runs, staff travel and housing, and more increase in proportion as visitor numbers climb. In turn, the nonrecreational traffic and use adds to maintenance costs.

A surge in visitors

The Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group includes Canyonlands and Arches National Parks and two monuments, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep. The two monuments are not included in the proposed rate increase. But the four canyon- country destinations attract a large tourist population due to their relative proximity to each other as well as Mesa Verde, Zion and Bryce, along with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

VISITORS TO ISLAND IN THE SKY

Visitors at the overlook at Island in the Sky, part of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is one of 17 parks that could see a fee hike. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Surging visitor numbers are creating traffic congestion everywhere in Canyonlands and Arches, says Canyonlands Superintendent Cate Cannon, but particularly at Island in the Sky, a district of Canyonlands, near Moab. In 2016 Canyonlands visitation reached threequarters of a million people, a 22 percent increase over 2015.

Nearly 600,000 visited Islands in the Sky, located on top of the red-rock country between the Colorado and Green Rivers. Island in the Sky recorded 71,299 visits in September 2017 alone.

The entrance to Island is near Moab, close to motels and campgrounds and easily accessed from the highway. “We advise people to get there early in the morning or the wait can be 45 minutes to an hour,” said Cannon. “Rather than travel around the sites you’ll spend your time looking for parking.”

Park officials are working to alleviate some of the problem through a five-year traffic plan for Arches, finished in late October. “We hope to alleviate the congestion by addressing peak times and hours,” Cannon said. “Canyonlands, which includes Island in the Sky, is not included yet because we need more evaluation.”

The plan addresses traffic at peak seasonal visits and times of day. “That pattern impacts the infrastructure of our facilities. Take toilets, as an example,” she said.

“Arches has 10,000 visitors a day and understandably needs more toilet availability. We really don’t want to build more toilets. We’re hoping the congestion plan will lower or flatten peak visitation, which would help alleviate the toilet demand.”

She said it’s unclear how additional revenues might help with the situation.

“It’s too early to tell what the impact of the proposed fee increase will be but the increase is designed to increase the level of revenue and put the money to the Deferred Maintenance projects whereas our five-year traffic plan is intended to change the pattern of visitation.”

Marketing

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the recent surge in visitation at many parks, a lot of the credit goes to successful marketing campaigns, such as Find Your Park, celebrating the 100-anniversary of the system in 2016, and the Every Kid in a Park, initiated in the White House two years ago.

The Obama administration took strides to increase visitor diversity in the parks, especially with the Every Kid in a Park program, said Ostfeld.

“It acknowledged that entry fees are a barrier for some families. By creating an introduction to the park system the program encouraged all families, including low-income, to use the public lands.”

The ongoing program gives every fourth-grader a pass to the parks for a year. The pass expires after the fourthgrade school year is completed, giving the student time to use it with their family during the summer. The next EKIP pass program begins again in September, with all the new fourth-grade students in the country. “The program considers how we invite people into the national parks,” Ostfeld said. “The proposed 2018 fee increase is the exact reversal of that.”

Both programs played a large part in the dramatic 7 percent increase in overall park attendance during 2016, which at the same time increased attendance at lesser known parks by 10 percent.

Increased visits

Although entrance fees are an important source of revenue, the increases will not provide enough to address deferred-maintenance problems. Estimates of the highest-priority needs top $2.4 billion. The proposal assures that all of the money collected through the increases will stay within the National Park Service and be spent on projects and activities that further its mission and purpose, with an emphasis on deferred-maintenance projects. This includes roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines, bathrooms, and other visitor services.

But Ostfeld questions how much good the fee increase will do. “If the parks are trying to address deferred-maintenance issues, this rate increase doesn’t even come close to that,” she told the Free Press. “The amount of revenue collected is so minimal compared to the enormous projects the Park Service says this will help.”

Visiting a national park represents an affordable vacation for many people, she said, but they may not be able to take advantage of the week-long entry their $70 will buy them. “Public land is an economic value for families, especially because travel costs on top of the $70 fee add up. What is lost on some decision makers is the fact that many low-income families cannot afford to take a week’s vacation. For many families, it’s just one night camping, or a day-trip away from work touring a park.”

Rocky local economies

Mesa Verde is not on the list for admission increases in 2018, but the park illustrates the dramatic impact visitors have on small-town economies. NPS archives indicate that there were 27 visitors to Mesa Verde in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt designated it a national monument.

Today, 110 years later, visitors to the 52,485-acre park and World Heritage Site reached 583,000 in 2016, spending $60 million at the destination and in surrounding communities. An additional $23.6 million is generated from 883 jobs at Mesa Verde, and most of it spent in the community.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, 77 miles northeast of Denver, will raise vehicle fees in 2018 to $70 per week if the increase is accepted. It’s a very big park, a popular tourist attraction, and a day-drive for eastern Colorado residents. Visitation to the park was up 400,000 in 2016 after topping out at 4 million the prior year. Visitation directly affects the economy of nearby Estes Park, a town along the Big Thompson River with a population of 6,000 in the off season. The summer-resort community is home to Rocky Mountain park headquarters.

Spokespersons for towns near affected parks are expressing concern.

Elaine Gisler, director of the Moab Area Tourism Council, told the Free Press the proposed admission increases are not surprising. “We understand the infrastructure issues,” she said.

But the council is concerned about how the funds will be used. “If the increase goes to the park and decisions are made by the superintendents, not the Washington offices, local jobs would be created to help address the deferred maintenance challenges. The park management knows best what is needed on a day-to-day basis, the priorities and how to get the work done,” Gisler explained.

“We definitely understand the need for infrastructure repairs,” Kate Rusch, public information officer for the Town of Estes Park, told the Free Press. “However, this proposed increase is extreme and we’re concerned about how it will impact our local economy.

“The increase from $20 to $70 may decrease the millions of visitors we see every year. We have one highway through the park. We’re at the east highway entrance, and the highway is a destination in itself. We’re very concerned, and also about Grand Lake, the little town on the other end of the highway.”

U.S. Highway 36, Trail Ridge Road, is in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the highest continuous motorway in the United States, a nationally designated All American Road, taking visitors above 11,000 feet for 11 miles.

“All of us understand deferred-maintenance issues,” said Katlyn Stahl, director of marketing for the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Our economy depends on the park and how well it’s maintained.”

During tourist season the town’s population explodes from 500 full-time residents to up to 15,000. The scenic byway is a key part of that.

“We’re close to Denver. It’s a day drive for many people. $70 to drive the road for a day is expensive,” Stahl said.

Currently admission to Rocky Mountain is $30. Annual passes cost $60. Both of those fees rose under the Obama administration by $10 each. “The gradual $10 increases are more reasonable,” Stahl said. “We’ll see what $70 does to the visitation numbers, but access to the park and the visitors’ experiences greatly affect our economy.”

When asked about the high price for a day drive on Trail Ridge Road, Barnum told the Free Press that the road has to be maintained and that’s some of what the $70 will be used for.

Limited access

In his release Secretary Zinke said the Interior Department needs “the vision to take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today. Shoring up our parks’ aging infrastructure will do that.”

But the Denver Post disagreed, in an editorial headlined, “Ryan Zinke’s national parks fee increase a slap to low-income families.”

“Seventy-five dollars might not sound like a lot of money to a Washington elite, but it’s real money for low-income families,” the Post’s editors wrote. “So call us amazed that the Make-America- Great-Again administration is stiffing poor families who wish to enjoy our most popular national parks.

“Call us doubly amazed that a Westerner … is the Trump official to hatch the idea. . . While [the Department of the Interior] seeks to more than double fees at these parks, the Trump administration has also proposed a 12 percent cut, or about $1.5 billion, to the National Park Service budget.”

The 2018 park budget is still being considered, said Barnum, who agrees that the $34 million the NPS is seeking for DM projects isn’t enough. But he said there are other opportunities such as public-private partnerships that can help. Since 2015 the National Park Service has leveraged over $45 million in funding from Congress through the Centennial Challenge program to attract more than $77 million from partner organizations supporting hundreds of projects across the country that have improved visitor services and strengthened partnerships to reinvigorate national parks.”

The senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wilds America campaign, Lena Moffit, said in a statement, “High entry fees will shut the public out of our parks. It’s increasingly clear that time outside is not just a luxury, but central to the health and well-being of our communities. We need to be looking for ways to expand outdoor opportunities for everyone.”

Other ways in

The Southeast Group is working to increase access to parks through free programs such as Canyon Country Outdoor Education, a cooperative venture among the Park Service, local school districts, and nonprofit organizations in Southeast Utah. “We conduct field trips to the parks after a ranger pays a day visit to the classroom and explains the destination,” Cannon explained. “We’re helping students safely experience and understand natural and cultural resources while exposing them to a wide range of environmentally responsible activities in the outdoors so they can develop skills, judgment, confidence and sensitivity.”

The program serves schools in Moab, Monticello, Blanding, Bluff, Montezuma Creek, and Monument Valley.

All American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians requesting entry to federal lands to exercise their traditional religions will be granted a fee exemption, according to Mary Wilson, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Canyonlands and Arches.

Simply being Native American does not grant free entry, however. The intent must be to enter for traditional religious practices, as opposed to recreational activities.

Children 15 years and under enjoy free admission to all national parks, as do people holding military, senior, and volunteer passes.

The annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which provides free entrance to all parks for a year, will remain $80.

Legislation passed by Congress in December 2016 raised the cost of the lifetime Senior Pass from $10 to $80, Seniors age 62 and older had until August 2017 to purchase the lifetime pass at $10.

Ostfeld says senior activism surprised everyone. In early 2017 word spread that the cost of the senior pass would go up. The seniors “rioted,” said Ostfeld.

Canon concurred, adding that there was such a run on the passes that the parks ran out. “We borrowed from other parks,” she said. “We moved the passes around to accommodate all the demand until finally the entire National Park Service just ran out of senior passes. NPS had to order new printing just for all the seniors who wanted access to the parks.”

The legislation also established an annual fixed-budget senior pass for $20. It is valid for one year from the date of issuance, but four accumulated annual senior passes purchased in prior years can be traded in for a lifetime pass.

Taking comments A public comment period on the peak-season entrance-fee proposal will be open through Nov. 23, 2017, Thanksgiving, on the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website https://parkplanning.nps.gov/ proposedpeakseasonfeerates. Written comments can be sent to 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, DC 20240.

Because so many parks do not charge entrance fees “there is room for the DOI to expand the kiosk entry fee system in the future,” says Ostfeld. “With the short public comment period it feels like the DOI is testing the waters.”

Ostfeld said duplicate messages sometimes are not counted. “It’s better to respond with a personal comment and briefly explain how the increase will affect you as a family or individual.”

Barnum said the Park Service “will read, evaluate and analyze every comment with a third-party contractor and make the final decision.”

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From November 2017.