Are proposed national park entrance fee increases discriminatory and against NPS values? Part 1 of 2

Viewing pier at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of 17 parks designated for a proposed fee increase by the Trump administration, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, June 13, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

ZION NATIONAL PARK – There has been no shortage of stories in news outlets across the country about the Trump administration’s proposed entrance fee increase for 17 of the country’s most popular national parks. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands in Utah number among those proposed parks, as well as others in the region, including the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks.

Read more: Should entrance fees more than double at Zion, 16 other national parks? Comment period open

View of Long’s Peak, the highest summit in in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of 17 parks designated for a proposed fee increase by the Trump administration, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, June 13, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Numerous reports and opinion pieces say the suggested fee hike discriminates against less fortunate Americans and goes against the mission of the National Park Service. However, others applaud the increase as a necessary revenue stream to help address the reported $11 billion maintenance backlog within sites administered by the National Park Service around the country.

The increase in fees comes despite the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal to cut nearly $400 million from national parks, a recent Washington Post story reported.

However, a set of bills that make up the proposed “National Park Service Legacy Act,” which has garnered bipartisan support, would utilize federal oil and gas royalties from the national treasury – to the tune of $12 billion – to help pay for deferred maintenance over the next 30 years. The Legacy Act is not yet law, and both Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump have been mute on how they feel about the bill.

One recent story in the Village Voice reported that some watchdog groups speculate the maintenance backlog is purposely inflated to justify leasing public lands to oil and gas interests and that concessionaires who lease property from the park service should shoulder some of the maintenance tab.

The proposed rise in entrance fees – which would be in effect for the 17 parks’ busiest seasons – are substantial, more than double the current rates. For instance, the proposed fee hike for seven-day entry into Zion National Park would jump from $30 per carload to $70 per carload.

Zion spokesman John Marciano said the public needs to remember the proposed fee increase and Legacy Act are not a done deal.

“Both the Legacy Act bill in Congress and the fee increases for 17 national parks are ‘proposals,’” he said. “Both are targeting ways to tackle the issue of deferred maintenance backlogs in our parks. Both are helpful.”

Some say “surge pricing” caused by the potential fee hike might naturally dissuade some visitors from coming during the peak season, thereby helping to address issues created by recent steady increases in visitation at Zion. However, in the park’s July newsletter explaining the alternatives being considered to address overcrowding, Zion officials state the park is against such pricing measures.

The switchbacks on the Navajo Loop trail descending into Wall Street in Bryce Canyon, one of 17 parks designated for a proposed fee increase by the Trump administration, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, July 15, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

“National park units are a public resource, and to the extent possible, should remain affordable to visitors across a range of financial status,” the newsletter stated. “Congestion pricing could place unfair financial burdens on some visitors, as price points during peak visitation times would likely need to be very high to maintain visitor capacity by dissuading park visitors from entering during crowded times through paying a high rate.”

Read more: This is what Zion National Park might do to solve overcrowding issues; how to comment

In response to this discrepancy, Marciano said that the entrance fee increase proposal and the Zion Visitor Use Management Plan are “two different animals for different purposes.”

“At the Zion National Park local level, ‘surge pricing’ was dismissed as a concept for purposes of our Visitor Use Management Plan,” he said, “because we didn’t believe it would accomplish our goal of managing visitation overcrowding.”

In response to the entrance fee increases, the Zion National Park Forever Project, the park’s official nonprofit partner that leads philanthropy efforts for the park, issued a statement outlining its view of the matter and advocating a more cohesive, planned-out approach.

“Increasing the visitor entrance fee during the summer months seems to arbitrarily target lower income individuals, young people, and families with children in school that may be unable to visit during a shoulder season,” the organization’s statement reads.

We don’t believe that this is a fair way to go about it, and that further analysis should be done.

Per the statement, some level of increase to entrance fees might be prudent, “but not in the absence of a more comprehensive approach by Congress, and by our National Park Service partner.”

While the statement acknowledges that federal appropriations and visitor entrance fees support the park’s basic maintenance needs and day-to-day operations, the Zion Forever Project also said annual congressional appropriations for Zion have not kept up with park visitation.

The statement suggests three necessities to get the most out of funding and meet parks needs  – suggestions the organization said it is sharing with the Interior Department and Congress.

  1. A dependable annual congressional appropriation that meets the basic operational and maintenance needs of parks based on increasing park visitation.
  2. More in-park flexibility for how appropriations and entrance fees can be utilized to give visitors and parks maximum benefit.
  3. Empowered private philanthropy and public-private partnerships to grow a lasting community of stewardship for our parks.
View of Kolob Canyons’ scenic drive in Zion National Park, one of 17 parks designated for a proposed fee increase by the Trump administration, Zion National Park, Utah, May 19. 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Currently 80 percent of park entrance fees stay within the park where they are collected, while 20 percent goes into a fund to help parks that don’t charge entrance fees. The latter allocation is a sticking point for some, who say those sites should charge entry fees to raise more money for the parks. Additionally, as the Forever Project’s statement noted, parks also depend on annual congressional appropriations.

In contrast, Utah’s state parks are operated differently and could be a model for national parks to emulate.

Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, said the state parks utilize a “pay to play” philosophy wherein the money used to operate the system is generated by users.

“We only receive a small tax appropriation, and that is dedicated to the operation of our museums and heritage sites that serve a somewhat different mission,” Hayes said. “None of the other parks receive any general tax dollars.”

Just as the state’s national parks are experiencing a dramatic increase in visitation, so are the state parks, Hayes said, although they don’t have the maintenance backlog of the national parks.

The state parks have been moving towards self sufficiency since 2011 and have put away some money for capital improvement, he said, but will ask for a significant appropriation during the next legislative session in order to start reinvesting in aging facilities.

View of the Grand Canyon from Point Imperial on its North Rim, Grand Canyon is one of 17 parks designated for a proposed fee increase by the Trump administration, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, July 3, 2017 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

“We are fortunate that our revenues are dedicated to the park system improvements,” Hayes said. “That means that the money generated in the parks has to be spent in the parks.”

Additionally, Utah’s state parks utilize something that could be considered the opposite of “surge pricing,” including lowering fees at campsites during the slower seasons to help entice potential visitors to come when the parks are not crowded. Visitors don’t see that in national parks.

Unfortunately, Hayes said, the federal government doesn’t have that kind of flexibility. This comes back to the Zion Forever Project’s suggestions.

The jury is still out on the fee increase proposal, and Americans, many of whom would say they “own” the national parks, are welcome to comment on it.

“The public comments continue to flow in, so we’ll have to wait and see what becomes of it,” Marciano said. “Once decisions are made, if any, on entrance fees, all parks will be affected differently.”

The general public can make their voices heard about the proposed fee increase until Nov. 23 here.

In the conclusion of this series, St. George News will discuss some of the varied public viewpoints already expressed by residents both in Utah and outside of the state. While some have supported the idea, comparing the national park experience to that of an amusement park, others are speculating that if enacted, the fee increase could actually backfire on individual parks.

Email: rwadsworth@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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4 Comments

  • Not_So_Much November 16, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    I believe that US citizens (those who can and will provide positive proof such as a passport) should pay one rate. All others should pay a much higher rate per person with no discounts for groups or tours. How much would be determined by crunching the numbers and then reviewed on a regular basis. That’s my two cents.

  • CHJ November 16, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    A retired National Park Service employee wrote the following and I suggest words are spot on:

    “My father was a statistician and my son holds an MBA, yet I don’t speak math, either. But the math is a distraction.
    What you speak, and I try to, is human decency.
    The recurrent effort to compare Yellowstone to Six Flags, Independence to Disney World and Padre Island to Sea World bespeaks a profound misunderstanding of both amusement parks and the protected pieces of our national legacy.
    It’s the same conceptual challenge presented by those who want to take off-road bicycles into the wilderness and make bungee-jumping a daily New River program.
    Yes, you pay, often dearly, for intensive recreation experiences. You get back excitement and adrenaline rushes. The National Park System may incidentally provide some of those, but isn’t the purpose for which they were set aside. It is, rather, the place for learning about and connecting with a shared heritage.
    If you believe that individually or as members of a particular in-group, we don’t share the heritage of other people whose experiences differ from ours, that is alien to the park concept.
    To me — and, I think, you — it is a core park concept that our ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, and national pedigrees shouldn’t separate us from one another. Pipe spring was a Mormon settlement, but it is part of the legacy taken on by a new citizen from Ethiopia. Manzanar held Japanese Americans, but it resonates with European Jews, Middle Eastern Muslims, and anyone who understands the impact of Jim Crow “services” or gender discrimination.
    The great value of parks is that there is no limit on what type of people can learn from them and respond to them. That value should be of such grand importance that we must scrap to find ways to connect with the broad spectrum of humanity that comprise our great nation.
    Let’s give everyone a chance to grasp the spirit of a welcoming nation by making certain that we don’t re-create the royal hunting preserves of Europe that welcomed only those with sufficient money or connections.
    We’ll never pay for parks through entrance and user fees, but the value of civic participation will repay itself to a nation that is generous, not churlish.
    A week-long pass suits someone who doesn’t lose pay for every day away from work. A fee that could feed a family of four for days is an outright barrier to many.
    Entrance fees teach the wrong lessons and exclude those – the young, the poor, the newly Americanized – who stand to gain the greatest lessons from the parks.
    Fees should not fall disproportionately on those who do use parks – they should be swept aside so that more of our society can use parks.
    Personally, I believe that begins at the simplest level: Open the damn doors. Let me and you, our neighbors, and total strangers in. They won’t learn from what is kept from them.”
    Duncan Morrow

  • statusquo November 16, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    The federal government grossly overspends on park construction. A combination of less spending and more revenue would be prudent.

    Increase entrance fees.

    Remove the requirements to pay “prevailing wages” to construction crews.

    Design cost effective improvements

    Room tax on surrounding local businesses who make a fortune off the parks every year

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