This land is your land — but it could cost you a lot more to visit next year.
The National Park Service, facing an $11 billion to $12 billion backlog in maintenance at its parks — and the likelihood of budget cuts by the Trump administration and Congress — last week proposed significant fee increases at 17 of the system’s most popular parks.
Fees at the 17 parks, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Washington state’s Rainier and Olympic national parks, would see Uber-like “surge pricing” for five-month stretches during their most popular seasons, with entrance fees increasing from the current $25 per vehicle to $70.
Of the more than 400 national parks in the nation, the 17 identified for park entrance fee increases account for about 70 percent of all entrance fee revenue for the park system.
The need for additional revenue to begin to address a long-festering maintenance backlog is inarguable. The parks service has seen record-setting attendance each year for several years, hitting nearly 331 million visits in 2016, for the National Parks’ centennial. At the same time that we’ve been “loving our parks to death,” Congress has largely ignored pleas for more funding and this year proposed further budget cuts. The Trump administration sought to reduce the parks budget by a debilitating 85 percent, while Republicans in the House proposed cutting the parks budget by a third.
The National Park Service can’t do Congress’ job and adopt its own budget, but it can increase its fees. But the proposed fee increases — along with system-wide increases for other fees, including camping and backcountry passes — threaten to make the national parks less accessible to many Americans.
“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,” said Teresa Pierno, chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, The New York Times reported.
Compared to Disneyland tickets, $70 a carload can sound like a relative bargain, but our nation’s national and state parks have always provided a refuge of affordable vacations for families, particularly those who can’t afford airline tickets and resorts. A near-tripling of the entrance fee and increases of other park fees would force many families to forego that vacation option.
And the fee increase wouldn’t allow the park service to put a significant dent in needed maintenance. According to park service estimates, the increase would generate about $68 million to $70 million additional each year over the $200 million the park service currently collects in fee revenue. And only 20 percent of those funds would be available to parks outside the 17 where the fee increase would be charged, offering little in maintenance funding to the nation’s 400 other parks.
What could begin to rehabilitate and save our parks, instead, is legislation introduced earlier this year in both the House and Senate that would set aside money for park maintenance, and not a penny of it directly from the taxpayer.
The National Parks Service Legacy Act would use funds collected from royalties from off-shore oil and gas fields. The legislation is similar to a program, shepherded through Congress by Everett’s Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides funding for creation and enhancement of parks and public lands and protection of natural resources.
The legacy act — which has bipartisan support, including Washington state co-sponsors Reps. Derek Kilmer and Suzan DelBene in the House and Sen. Patty Murray in the Senate — would allocate $50 million for the park service for its first three years, but ramp that up to $150 million for the next three, $250 million for the following three years and then $500 million each year from 2027 through 2047.
Importantly, the parks legacy act would not cut into funding for the conservation fund. The recent history of the conservation fund, however, shows that the novel funding mechanism isn’t always foolproof when Congress is involved.
Successful for 50 years, the conservation fund’s reauthorization, in its long history usually a sure bet for renewal, was allowed to lapse in 2015 before it was renewed for three years at the end of that year. Even then, Congress only authorized $450 million for 2016, half of what Jackson originally intended in winning its passage in 1964. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, joined by Murray, is again seeking permanent reauthorization for the conservation fund.
Everett’s favorite son was forward-thinking when he proposed using the nation’s natural resources to add to and enhance its legacy of parks, natural preserves and other public lands.
Congress can honor that legacy by doing the same for the nation’s national parks and love them back to life.
Comment on fee increases
The National Parks Service is taking public comment until Nov. 23 on its proposal to increase entrance fees at 17 national parks. Comment online at tinyurl.com/CommentNPSfees.