ZION NATIONAL PARK — With debate still raging over the Trump administration’s proposal to more than double the entrance fees at 17 of the country’s most popular national parks, St. George News conducted a survey to glean the opinions of residents in both Utah, as well as the surrounding region.
The proposed fee increase would affect Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, as well as other national parks in the region, including the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks.
Question 1: “How justified do you feel the proposed national park entrance fee increase is?”
- Extremely justified: 10.7 percent.
- Somewhat justified: 9.3 percent.
- Somewhat unjustified: 24 percent.
- Extremely unjustified: 41.3 percent.
- No opinion: 9 percent.
Some are able to justify the fee hike by arguing that getting a family into a national park, even at $70 per carload, is still cheaper than getting an entire family into an amusement park, which national parks are often compared to these days, especially with the significant increase in visitation.
“Disneyland charges $90 a day per person,” said Pete West, a survey respondent from Scottsdale, Arizona. “The place is always packed. A $70 fee is insignificant overall. The parks are struggling to keep up with the demand for use. A (increased) fee may discourage overcrowding in the parks.”
Julie Beck of Hurricane said that even at $70 per carload, the national parks are still a relative bargain and would be close to the same price as taking a family of four out to a movie.
Others say that the proposed fee increase will not be effective, seeing as parkgoers can purchase the America the Beautiful annual pass to every National Park Service area – as opposed to a pass for just one park for seven days — for just $10 more.
“It’s a no brainer to pay another $10 to buy the annual pass,” said Robyn Van Shaar, of Herriman, Utah. “That would actually encourage me to visit more parks.”
A former national park visitor-use assistant responded to the survey and said purchasing the annual pass as an alternative would also be detrimental at the specific park level. This is because a portion of park-specific entrance fees stay in the park where they are purchased.
For instance, of the current $30 entrance fee to Zion National Park, 80 percent of it stays within the park. Further, of the money that stays in the park, 80 percent goes toward shuttle operations. However, if more visitors went to Zion using an annual pass purchased elsewhere, the park would not receive that percentage.
“If everyone is pretty much only buying or using annual passes, how will they (Zion) pay for the shuttle?” the former visitor-use assistant explained. “Annual pass money cannot be used for that purpose. In the end, I believe as more people switch to purchasing the annual passes, the park service will actually lose money as they keep less of those funds.”
When the fee goes up to $70, there are whole segments of the population who will see that and simply say, ‘I can’t afford to go there’ and ‘I don’t want to spend $80 on the annual pass, because I was only going to go to that one park.’ We will lose them and their children.
Kimberly Wittwer, a hotel manager from Virgin, Utah, said the same thing about annual passes but suggested an alternative.
“It would make more sense to increase the rate in a smaller increment, such as $5-$10 to still entice people to purchase that pass,” she said. “With 4.5 million visitors per year, assuming only one million of those visitors purchase a weekly park pass at Zion, that’s still a pretty significant amount of money that would be available to keep in Zion for its operations.”
Some respondents, however, think the fee increase is a good thing.
“The fee has nothing to do with who can afford it,” Hurricane resident Bryson Bruso said. “It is necessary for the upkeep of the parks.”
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, with the fee hikes, but it’s necessary medicine for the ailing national park infrastructure,” said Travis Manning, of Caldwell, Idaho.
“I think an increase is needed,” another Hurricane resident, Lanina Rogers, said. “We have so many visitors and not enough employees. The park is significantly understaffed. They are not keeping up with demand so more funds are needed for supply.”
Question #2: “Do you feel the national park fee increase unjustly discriminates against those who could not afford the entrance fee increase?”
- Yes: 66.7 percent.
- No: 17.3 percent.
- Uncertain: 16 percent.
“The fee increase specifically discriminates against low-income families, who would visit the parks during the busy season, but who wouldn’t normally visit enough parks to purchase an annual pass,” said Hurricane resident Kevin Wheeler.
Question #3: “Do you feel the fee increase would go against what national parks stand for – preserving natural resources and providing access to them?”
- Strongly agree: 37.3 percent.
- Somewhat agree: 16 percent.
- Somewhat disagree: 9.3 percent.
- Strongly disagree: 17.3 percent.
- No opinion/unsure: 20 percent.
“The National Parks should be available for all citizens to visit,” said Kelly South, of Salt Lake City. “Fees that make it fiscally impossible for citizens to attend contradict their mission.”
“When you have to pay more it makes it feel like the money is more important than the access to such beautiful places,” Angela Williams, of St. George, said.
A dental hygienist from Ivins said people who live near national parks should not be subject to a fee increase.
“We have a greater interest in keeping it beautiful and preserved so that we can continually visit and have a place to enjoy for generations to come.”
Question #4: “What do you think Congress could do to better fund the National Park Service without an entrance fee increase?”
Ten respondents said that Congress should budget better and cut government waste. A few even joked that Congress should take a pay cut and that Trump should stop taking what they said were exorbitantly priced vacations on the taxpayers’ dime.
Several respondents said the park service could change its fee structure, offering two- or three-day admission for a lower price than the standard 7-day admission, especially so that those who do not stay in each park as long would get their money’s worth.
Several others offered suggestions for pricing tiers, such as reducing the price for locals and charging foreign tourists more.
“International visitors should pay higher fees since they don’t pay taxes that support the parks,” J. Pexton, of Centerville, said. “It would be like in-state tuition versus out of state tuition.”
Manning, who called the fee increase “necessary medicine,” agreed with Pexton.
“Many foreigners visit these highly visible parks and raising fees would allow affluent foreigners to assist in the needed infrastructure upgrades,” Manning said. “The U.S. national parks are extraordinary in beauty and diversity and will, I believe, still attract tens of thousands of international travelers despite the fee hikes.”
Fee hikes for foreigners, however, doesn’t look like a viable option, said Zion National Park spokesman John Marciano.
“There is nothing in the law that allows for us to differentiate fees we charge for foreign visitors, and no formal discussion taking place on this topic that we are aware of at this time,” he said.
A few respondents mentioned funneling more money from other federal sources towards the national parks.
“One source of income is the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Pam Wheeler, of Hurricane. “The original idea of the fund was to use it to help maintain national parks. If more of that money wasn’t diverted before it reached the parks, this wouldn’t even be a debate.”
Chris Isom, of Hurricane, suggested a two-fold plan to help bolster national parks. He said the federal government could increase timber, wood cutting and grazing royalties from the BLM to fund the national parks as well as reduce overhead by limiting the massive expansion of national monuments.
The visitor-use assistant noted a training attended by a friend about what the U.S. government spends on federal agencies and said that if the government took what it spent on national defense for one year and gave that money to the National Park Service, the agency could operate the national parks at the current rate of spending for the next 400 years.
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.
Editor’s note: This survey was solicited online by the author through social media from Thursday, Nov. 9, until Wednesday, Nov. 15. The survey was taken by 75 respondents; however, respondents are not all personally known by the author and were not required to provide their full names.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.