By Doug Pfeffer
The National Park Service allowed 60 days for public comment on a proposal to drastically raise fees at some of our most iconic national parks. Many Americans took advantage of the extended deadline to oppose such a drastic increase, which could go into effect as early as Jan. 1.
I am a veteran who served 20 years in the U.S. military, and now spend much of my free time in many gorgeous national parks near my Pacific Northwest home. I acknowledge that many of our parks have fallen into disrepair, and something needs to be done to address the backlog of maintenance requests at places like Olympic National Park. But I was shocked and outraged that this huge fee increase was proposed to pass on to visitors.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced plans to raise the gate fee at some parks, including Mount Rainier and Olympic, to $70 from current fees of $25, especially during peak visitor seasons. Additional funding is needed to address maintenance backlogs that have developed through years of underfunding the nation’s parks, but the drastic fee hike is counterproductive for those who love them.
Decades of Congressional underfunding has led to an estimated $11.3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects; Olympic has a backlog totaling nearly $140 million, including more than $105 million in road repairs and more than $10 million in building repairs. Mount Rainier also has about $150 million in repair needs.
The fee increase would not generate nearly enough revenue to address all these issues, and would unduly burden visitors, like myself, who go to parks to experience the splendor of nature. These places carry extra meaning for us veterans. Devoting ourselves to service is something 92 percent of us say we want after our time in the military. The parks are the best places I can imagine putting our commitment to service to work once our military service has come to an end.
Recently, U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, and Dave Reichert, R-Washington, introduced legislation to make a concerted effort to making these repairs. The National Park Service Legacy Act, along with an identical Senate bill supported by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, would allocate $500 million annually to the Park Service from revenues the government receives for oil and natural gas royalties, every year, until 2047. It is up to us as engaged citizens to make our voices heard by our representatives on Capitol Hill that have yet to support this bipartisan solution, such as Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Parks face this challenge because they’ve long been underfunded by Congress. Yet, even as the Trump administration is calling for increased fees for visitors, it’s also proposing the largest cut in the park service budget since World War II. American families should not be forced to pay today for what Congress and the administration have failed to do — particularly when a solution exists.
We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places — protected for all Americans to experience — unaffordable for some families to visit. This is bad for families, and bad for local economies that rely on their visits.
My fellow veterans at The Mission Continues and I will continue to do hands-on projects at national parks across the country, but we ask that Congress meet our efforts by keeping these lands accessible for all Americans regardless of income by opposing this drastic fee increase.
Doug Pfeffer is a former first sergeant in the U.S. Army and City Impact manager for The Mission Continues, a group that works to deploy veterans with new missions in their communities. He lives in Seattle.