Proposed national park fees need modification

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What has been too good of a deal for too long? There are a lot of possible answers; I would say the amount of state and federal gasoline taxes we pay have been too low while our roads crumble.

However, that is not the focus of this column, although it is close.

The issue is the proposed National Park Service fee increases which Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently announced. His proposal calls for more than doubling gate fees at 17 of the nation’s most visited national parks including Rocky Mountain National Park during the peak June-through-October season.

Currently, weekly vehicle passes at Rocky Mountain cost $30 while annual passes cost $60. Both of the fees were increased $10 each during the Obama Administration - which drew criticism from advocacy groups saying it created a hardship for many to access the parks.

Zinke’s plan calls for the fees to be raised to $70 for weekly passes and annual park specific passes to $75. The current $20 for a one-day vehicle pass at RMNP during high season would jump to $70.

And here is the puzzling part in my opinion; the current America the Beautiful pass, valid at all national parks and federal land, would be unchanged at $80.

Public comments on the proposal will conclude on Nov. 23. The outlined fees are planned to be implemented as of May 1 at other parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali and Arches. The outcome of the comments received could have an impact on the proposed fees.

Backlog of needs

It is no secret that the National Park Service is faced with a huge backlog of maintenance, repair, updating and new capital improvements. The total price tag is quoted at $12 billion.

This is a travesty. Our national parks system is a major public asset and offers such natural beauty to enjoy but yet over the years Congress has failed to budget funds at the pace that were needed. Now, we have this huge liability and something must be done. Zinke’s proposed fees would generate a projected $70 million per year which is a start, but hardly cures the built-up dilemma. Plus, the pending Trump proposed budget would cut $1.2 billion for national parks - a 12 percent decrease.

Too much and too little

So, we have this dire backlog of needed improvements/repairs/replacements totaling $12 billion which will just get bigger if something is not done.

At the same time, national parks fees have not kept pace over the years. The proposed fee schedule is viewed by a portion of the public as being too draconian which would prevent a segment of Americans from being able to afford access and enjoyment of the national parks.

Zinke’s fee schedule is too much for a weekly pass while the annual pass doesn’t increase enough. The annual pass which gets you access to all national parks needs a proportional increase.

Local communities would be impacted

As we know, the Town of Estes Park is connected at the hip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The national park’s fate is the same for the town as tourism generated by park visitors is the golden goose for the town. If people stop coming to RMNP, that reduced visitor count at the park would cause a reduction in business for merchants and in turn lower taxes to the Town of Estes Park.

To a lesser degree, the Town of Lyons, Colorado would feel a reduction in business and enjoy less tax revenues.

As you might expect, both towns are on public record as opposing the park fee changes.

So, we see that it is not just the impact on people’s ability to pay the higher access fees, but the ensuing impacts on local businesses and
town tax revenues.

However, let’s remember the more than four million visitors to RMNP and the problems that have created. Perhaps reduced visitors would help resolve current traffic and crowding issues.

A phased approach with proportionality

So, what should Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department do?

First, I would stagger the weekly fee increase to $70 over four years using $20 incremental jumps from the current $30 to $50 and then to $70.

For the annual pass fee increase, I would go beyond Zinke’s proposal. He is proposing an increase of $15, but I would recommend increases of $25 from $60 to $85.

Finally, for an annual pass accessing all national parks, I would jump the fee from the current $80 to $120.

The latter two increases are to create a better degree of proportionality. I don’t know what the annual revenue would be compared to Zinke’s estimated $70 million but at the end of the four years it would be generating more than his proposal.

The national parks need to be run more like a business and we need to get Congress and the President to increase annual funding to keep up with repairs and improvements - not decrease it.

Let’s make our National Park Service shine again.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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