The National Park Service has announced a proposal to more than double the peak-season entrance fees at the country's busiest national parks, including Shenandoah, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.
The park service said Tuesday that it needs the revenue expected from the fees to address its nearly $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. But the announcement has been met with worries that higher prices will push the parks out of reach for many Americans.
"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," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a statement.
The rate hike would affect the 17 national parks that already drive the most revenue. Those sites, which stretch from Denali in Alaska to Acadia in Maine, generate 70 percent of all park entrance fees. Most national parks are free to enter: Of the 417 total NPS sites, only 118 charge admission fees.
The proposed rates would significantly increase the costs to enter the parks during their busiest months. Entry at these parks currently costs $25 or $30 per vehicle, no matter the season. Under the new rates, entrance would cost $75 per vehicle during a five-month peak season.
Per-person entry fees, $10-$15 at the current rate, would rise to $30 during peak season. The cost for an annual pass for access to all parks would remain unchanged at $80.
Each park will continue to keep 80 percent of the entrance fees it brings in, under the terms of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. The other 20 percent goes to projects at other national parks.
A public comment period on the proposed fee increases began yesterday and ends Nov. 23. The public can submit comments here.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a state that's home to two of the affected parks, encouraged the public to weigh in on the proposal.
"Americans already own these parks and they shouldn't have to empty their wallets to enjoy them," Tester told the Flathead Beacon. "Glacier and Yellowstone should be accessible to all of us. This decision will price Montana families out of our public lands, and hurt local economies, which thrive thanks to our National Parks."
"The enormity of the increases exceeds any increases in the history of the National Park Service," said Maureen Finnerty, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, an organization of current and former parks employees. "Fees alone are not the answer to the budget problems. At a time when there is record visitation in our National Parks, there should be adequate financial support by the Administration and the Congress."
Asked if the higher fees were meant to offset budget cuts, the park service pointed to a provision in the White House's proposed budget that calls for $33.3 million in programmatic increases for construction, planning, and deferred maintenance at the parks.
"People don't always think about the fact that when you show up at these very remote areas, you can still drink water, even take a shower, go for a drive along Skyline Drive," NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum told NPR. "But all that takes money."
Indeed, the Interior Department's 2018 overview says the budget "maintains $99.3 million for repair and rehabilitation projects, which address the deferred maintenance backlog, as well as $112.7 million for cyclic maintenance projects, which ensure maintenance is conducted in a timely fashion and does not become deferred."
Overall, however, the Trump administration's budget proposal calls for significant cuts to the park service in 2018, decreasing its funding by $296.6 million compared with this year. The budget also anticipates a smaller staff for the park service next year: 18,268 full-time employees, down 1,242 from 2017.
On Twitter, some voiced support of the proposed fee hikes.
"People will pay upwards of $60 to visit a theme park for a day," one person tweeted. "The least we can do is pay a fair amount for our parks."
"Makes me sad that the budget keeps getting cut! I'm willing to pay more to keep these beautiful parks protected and clean," wrote another.
But many others were critical.
"You know what would help address the NPS funding issue? If the federal budget included more money, not less, for infrastructure," wrote one.
"Our members are infuriated at this," said Lena Moffitt, senior director at the Sierra Club, which was making plans Wednesday afternoon to send an action alert to its members. "It's galvanizing, I would say."
Moffitt says a fee hike is the wrong way to address the parks' maintenance costs.
"The right way would be for Congress to allocate full finding through legislation to address this backlog of maintenance. Then they could use resources from other places to fix and maintain our parks," she says, "and not turn our most popular public places into playgrounds for the wealthy."
John Loomis, a professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, co-authored a study on the total economic value of the national parks.
He says the fee increase would only have limited impact, and that entrance fees to the parks haven't kept pace with inflation.
"When you look at the total cost of visiting some of these remote parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, the entrance fee is a small amount of the total cost of those trips," he tells NPR.
"If you're a single mother working a minimum-wage job, what keeps you from these parks is not the entrance fee. What keeps you from the parks is the high cost of transportation and lodging."
Marysue Costello works at the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce visitors' center, just at the park's edge in Montana.
Costello says that while the parks need more money for road and infrastructure repairs, she's concerned that the fee hike could make the parks cost-prohibitive for low-income families.
"If people are priced out of that market, how long will that desire and dedication to preserving national parks be in the ethos of the American people?"
The parks that would be effected by the peak-season fee increase:
NPR's Nathan Rott contributed to this report.
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