Anger at US na­tional parks’ price hike plan

The Guardian - Travel - - Globespotting - Laura Chubb

On an un­sea­son­ably grey Mon­day last month, steady driz­zle did not de­ter vis­i­tors to Utah’s Arches na­tional park. Long queues of traf­fic crept slug­gishly past view­points; car parks filled to ca­pac­ity forced hik­ers to give up on planned trails. Such frus­tra­tions are typ­i­cal nowa­days: Arches’ dra­matic rock for­ma­tions draw more than dou­ble the num­ber of vis­i­tors they did in 2000. And it’s not an iso­lated prob­lem: the US Na­tional Park Ser­vice (NPS) re­ported more than 330 mil­lion vis­its in 2016 – 44 mil­lion more than at the turn of the cen­tury.

This could be the real rea­son for NPS’s an­nounce­ment last week that it is con­sid­er­ing surge pric­ing at 17 pop­u­lar parks. Un­der the pro­pos­als, en­try to Yosemite, Yel­low­stone and oth­ers would swell from the cur­rent $25-30 per ve­hi­cle, to $70 at peak times. Charges for mo­tor­cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans would dou­ble.

But when in­te­rior sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke an­nounced the higher en­trance fees, he cited an $11.9bn main­te­nance back­log as the rea­son, say­ing in a state­ment: “The in­fra­struc­ture of our na­tional parks is age­ing and in need of ren­o­va­tion and restora­tion.”

Odd, then, that he has also pro­posed slash­ing fed­eral fund­ing to the NPS by $300m. The $70m in pro­jected earn­ings from the surge pric­ing hardly cov­ers the dif­fer­ence.

Crit­ics also ar­gue that heftier en­try fees would be pro­hib­i­tive for low­er­in­come fam­i­lies, who usu­ally have to travel dur­ing pub­lic and school hol­i­days (high sea­son).

Ni­cole Gen­tile of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress (CAP), a pro­gres­sive think­tank, pointed out that US tax­pay­ers could end up foot­ing part of the bill for pri­vate en­ter­prises. The CAP says around $389m of the main­te­nance back­log the NPS cites re­lates to ho­tels, restau­rants and gift shops within the na­tional parks. She said: “Sec­re­tary Zinke should start by en­sur­ing these pri­vate, for-profit businesses are pay­ing their share.”

A more re­al­is­tic strat­egy for re­solv­ing the back­log is “a ro­bust fed­eral com­mit­ment to fund­ing”, ac­cord­ing to John Garder of the Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

That seems un­likely. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing less in­ter­est in preser­va­tion than pri­vati­sa­tion: Zinke has pro­posed trim­ming the area of na­tional mon­u­ments to open up land to fos­sil-fuel in­dus­tries, and his pro­posed in­te­rior depart­ment bud­get, while cut­ting NPS funds, sought to pour tens of mil­lions into coal, oil and gas in­vest­ments on pub­lic lands.

To ad­dress the over­crowd­ing is­sue, Garder says he prefers so­lu­tions that in­crease ef­fi­ciency rather than re­duce op­por­tu­nity for vis­its, such as the lot­tery-based re­served en­try sys­tem mooted at Zion na­tional park, also in Utah.

Of the surge pric­ing plan, he said: “Most ob­jec­tion­able is that vis­i­tors are ex­pected to pay their share, but there’s no ac­knowl­edge­ment the fed­eral gov­ern­ment bears re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Car park … a traf­fic jam in Arches na­tional park near Moab, Utah

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