Interior backs off tripling fees at national parks

By:  Lynda V. Mapes
Source: The Seattle Times

With the Trump administration’s withdrawal of huge fee increases at national parks, attention has turned to finding a needed long-term solution to address the parks’ $12billion maintenance backlog.

A plan announced in October to triple entrance fees at the country’s most popular national parks during peak visiting season, including Mount Rainier and Olympic, was met with howls of public outcry.

On Thursday, the National Park Service instead announced the U.S. Department of the Interior’s new plan to implement minor increases to fees at all 117 National Park Service sites that collect fees, amounting generally to no more than a $5 increase.

That scaled-back proposal is expected to raise about $60million per year.

The original administration proposal would have tripled fees to as high as $70 per car at peak season at 17 of the country’s most popular parks to help pay for an $11.6 billion backlog for repairs. However, the increase, while hitting visitors hard, would have addressed less than 1 percent of the backlog.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell helped lead the charge against the fee increase and said what is needed now is an analysis of the century-old park service to determine how it can better serve the public in the next century.

“We definitely thought this hike was too much and wasn’t well thought out,” Cantwell said by phone Thursday. “Even as of just a few weeks ago, they were still adamant they were going to move ahead on this,” Cantwell said of the administration. “So I am glad they relented.”

The public made clear its displeasure with the original fee hike. The National Parks Conservation Association in its analysis of public comments to the proposal found that 98 percent opposed the increase.

Instead, under the new policy, most seven-day vehicle passes to enter national parks will be increased by $5 at most parks by June 1.

All the revenue raised from the increase will remain with the National Park Service, and most of it will stay at the park where it was collected.

The funds will be used for maintenance at parks that are seeing record numbers of visits, with 1.5 billion in the last five years, the Interior Department reported in a news release about the decision.

Public thanked

In the release, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke thanked the public for its response to the initial fee proposal.

“Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases at the 117 fee-charging parks as opposed to bigger increases proposed for 17 highly visited parks.

“The $11.6 billion maintenance backlog isn’t going to be solved overnight and will require a multitiered approach as we work to provide badly needed revenue to repair infrastructure.”

Rob Smith, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Northwest regional office in Seattle, said the slow-moving train wreck from the original plan to the pullback points to the need for a long-term solution to park maintenance.

“A $5 solution will not solve a several-billion-dollar problem.”

He urged support for the National Park Service Legacy Act that would put excess, unobligated oil and gas revenue that would otherwise be returned to the treasury into a dedicated fund created for park maintenance over the course of the next 50 years.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said the proposal is a bipartisan solution to the maintenance problem at the nation’s parks that doesn’t saddle visitors alone with what he says is a national obligation.

In a statement Thursday, Hilary Franz, state Commissioner of Public Lands, said, “Thankfully Secretary Zinke heard our outrage and abandoned his shortsighted plan. I want to thank the thousands of Washingtonians who joined me in calling for a more thoughtful approach to addressing maintenance backlogs in our national parks.

“I know firsthand the difficulty public agencies face in maintaining recreational lands. But governments must fully commit to ensuring everyone — regardless of age, race or income bracket — has the opportunity to experience our treasured public lands.”

In addition to the state’s elected officials, some of the most celebrated outdoor luminaries in the region spoke out against the original fee increase.

Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, said at a November, 2017 news conference called by Cantwell that he was outraged by the increase. He invited elected officials and the general public to bury it.

“We have to get people outdoors,” Whittaker said at the November news conference. “Let everyone go; I don’t want to walk the trails with just the 1 percenters. I want to be with everyone … We need nature. Don’t price anyone out of the wilderness. No child left indoors!”

His became a rallying cry of opposition.

Economic engine

Cantwell said Thursday that outdoor recreation has become an important engine of the economy. The parks also provide unique and important experiences.

“To me, it’s personal. What we have is so unique,” Cantwell said.

“The pleasure it gives returning veterans, young people, the bonding for families, there is nothing like the outdoor experience. I just want to make sure we are valuing it.”