Q&A: Na­tional parks fee hike

Riverbank News - - PERSPECTIVE -

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Vis­it­ing the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar na­tional parks would get more costly un­der a fed­eral pro­posal re­leased this week. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice says its goal is to cut down on the nearly $12 bil­lion in main­te­nance projects that have been put off un­der bud­get con­straints.

Un­der the plan, vis­i­tors driv­ing into 17 of the most pop­u­lar na­tional parks, mostly in the U.S. West, would pay $70 for a weekly pass, up from $25 to $30. They in­clude the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yel­low­stone and Zion.

Out­side the re­gion, three parks in Maine and Vir­ginia would be af­fected. Peo­ple have a month to com­ment on the plan.

Here are some de­tails about the money the pro­posal would raise:

HOW MUCH WILL THE PARK SER­VICE RAISE?

The agency col­lected nearly $200 mil­lion in en­trance fees in the last fis­cal year. It ex­pects to raise an ad­di­tional $70 mil­lion an­nu­ally by charg­ing vis­i­tors more to get into the 17 parks dur­ing the five busiest months of the year. Those parks gen­er­ate 70 per­cent of the rev­enue from en­trance fees.

The out­come is un­cer­tain. The Park Ser­vice has been break­ing vis­i­ta­tion records for three years, with nearly 331 mil­lion vis­its in 2016. That could mean a bump in rev­enue and im­proved ser­vices for vis­i­tors.

Oth­ers worry the fee in­crease could turn peo­ple off to na­tional parks, espe­cially those who are lower-in­come, and say Congress should en­sure they are well­funded.

WHERE WILL THE MONEY GO?

The Park Ser­vice has a main­te­nance back­log to­tal­ing $11.3 bil­lion. That’s work the agency has put off for more than a year. It in­cludes fix­ing wa­ter sys­tems, roads, build­ings, camp­grounds, hous­ing and trails.

The Park Ser­vice al­lo­cates more than $1 bil­lion a year for main­te­nance, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent U.S. Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port, but can­not catch up be­cause the prob­lem is huge.

The back­log de­creased last year by $600 mil­lion as the agency wrapped up some large projects and saw cost sav­ings in con­struc­tion.

Amanda Greene of Ho­quiam, Washington, said she would like to see more park­ing at Olympic Na­tional Park or a bus­ing sys­tem to avoid over­crowd­ing. Plus, bet­ter re­strooms.

WILL IT HELP?

Philip Fran­cis, a former su­per­in­ten­dent at Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park and Blue Ridge Park­way, said the money is a small per­cent­age of what’s needed.

“It’s bet­ter than not hav­ing it,” he said. “We cer­tainly need a much more sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment.”

The Park Ser­vice bud­get is less than 1 per­cent of the over­all fed­eral bud­get, and the pro­posal from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for fis­cal year 2018 calls for less money over­all for the agency.

Former Grand Canyon Su­per­in­ten­dent Steve Martin is skep­ti­cal the fee in­crease would raise the nearly $70 mil­lion that the agency projects.

“It could gen­er­ate a lot of ill will as well,” he said.

Martin sug­gested switch­ing from a ve­hi­cle fee to a per-per­son fee. De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve in Alaska al­ready uses that struc­ture.

WHAT ELSE COULD HELP?

Na­tional parks have been cre­ative in rais­ing funds when they don’t get enough money from Congress. Most have a fundrais­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps cover vis­i­tor ser­vices or main­te­nance needs.

Some of those groups, such as the Trust for the Na­tional Mall, the Yosemite Con­ser­vancy and the Get­tys­burg Foun­da­tion, raise mil­lions of dol­lars a year. Smaller groups run book­stores or gift shops and give the parks a share of the prof­its.

Parks also rely on vol­un­teers and do­na­tions for work that in­cludes op­er­at­ing vis­i­tor cen­ters, mow­ing lawns and clean­ing re­strooms.

“We get peo­ple of all stripes who come to our parks,” Fran­cis said. “They come to the parks whether they’re rich or poor, Repub­li­can or not. I think they’re dis­ap­pointed when things aren’t up to snuff.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

A 30-day pub­lic com­ment pe­riod runs through Nov. 23. Those who want to weigh in can do so on­line or via mail. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice says it will re­view the com­ments be­fore de­cid­ing whether to im­ple­ment its pro­posal.

The agency has a fact sheet on its web­site out­lin­ing the plan, but it doesn’t say ex­actly which projects would be funded by the fee in­crease.

Not all of the 417 parks charge en­trance fees. Those that do retain 80 per­cent of the rev­enue, while the other 20 per­cent goes into a fund to help the 299 free parks.

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