Interior Reconsiders Steep Park Fee Hikes Due to Public Backlash

Department reportedly exploring different fixes to park budget crisis following heavy opposition

By Tristan Scott
A crowd of hikers waits to cross a snow field along the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook near Logan Pass on July 22, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Interior Department officials are changing course on a plan to impose steep fee increases at America’s most popular national parks — including Glacier and Yellowstone — following a groundswell of 109,000 public comments, nearly all of them sharply critical of the proposal.

The change of heart at Interior, first reported Monday by the Washington Post and since independently confirmed by multiple sources with knowledge of the deliberations, comes as the beleaguered National Park Service grapples with a budget overrun with severe cuts and a $12 billion maintenance backlog, as well park units overwhelmed by record crowds, warming temperatures and wildfire.

While the plan to increase fees was aimed at backfilling the gaping budget hole and easing congestion by driving visitation into the shoulder season, critics of the proposal are quick to point out that the agency won’t solve its budget crisis by pricing out the visitors it most depends on.

Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said a review of the comments submitted revealed that 98 percent opposed the fee increase. What’s more, Douce noted that even fee increases as exorbitant as what Interior proposed will only generate $70 million annually, a small fraction of the revenue needed to keep the backlog of repairs from growing.

Instead, Douce urged Congress to commit to a budget fix for America’s “national treasures,” and said Interior’s willingness to reconsider the proposal is evidence that the volume of opposition from members of the public and elected leaders made a difference.

“I think they heard loud and clear that they can’t put the burden of addressing these maintenance needs on the backs of visitors to national parks,” she said. “We are still waiting on an announcement from Interior, but we are encouraged to hear that they are listening to the public. That is refreshing to see and hear.”

The plan to more than double some fees was initially unveiled last October, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who grew up in Whitefish on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, proposed increasing entrance fees at 17 national parks from between $25 and $30 to $70 during peak season. In the case of Glacier Park, the period of peak visitation would essentially span its entire operating season.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks in West Glacier on March 10, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Businesses situated in gateway communities near national parks were quick to push back against at the proposed fee increases, citing firsthand experience and numerous studies charting park visitors’ contributions to local economies as evidence of their role as a powerful economic engine.

In 2016, the 17 national parks identified in the proposal supported $6.7 billion in economic activity and more than 75,000 private-sector jobs, according to a study conducted by the NPCA.

“Our national parks are a vital pillar of Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, and Secretary Zinke’s proposal to increase entrance fees would have a devastating impact on gateway businesses,” Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, said. “These proposed fee increases would cost our gateway communities millions in revenue, with losses that are near impossible for small businesses to recover from. We hope that Secretary Zinke will be more responsive to public input on key policies like these that affect Montana businesses, as they continue to come before the administration.”

Shelby Handlin Hampton, who along with her husband owns Glacier Outfitters in the Apgar Village on the southwest corner of Glacier Park, said she’s sympathetic with the National Park Service’s budget fiasco. But sweeping fee increases to the degree proposed would only make matters worse.

“We need to figure out how to fund our public lands, but the fee increases as proposed would disenfranchise our visitors,” she said. “It will affect our locals, it will affect our drive-by visitors and our lower-income visitors, especially college students.”

Carla Fisher, co-owner of Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls, said while her small business enjoys a devoted local following, a lion’s share of customers during the summer months are traveling through the gateway corridor en route to Glacier Park.

“When we heard about the proposed fee increases, our initial reaction was how it would impact the number of people visiting us on their way to the park,” she said. “But as someone who enjoys access to public lands not just as a business owner but as a resident, this would impact my ability and the ability of others who live here to visit a place we love.”

According to the more than 109,000 comments submitted to the Interior Department, many locals agree, even those who agree that the National Park Service’s budget is in dire need of repair and who suggest that some fee increases would be tolerable.

“I will no longer be able to afford to visit Glacier National Park if you raise the price to $70,” reads comment No. 525. “The park is only able to be driven through for a few months, weather permitting. Thus, the peak season is really the only season at the park. You can only visit very small portions the remainder of the year. Why not make it so that only out of state residents pay the full cost of a day pass? Montanans do not make a great deal of money and $70 could be better spent elsewhere. You simply cannot enact a policy depriving access to our state’s greatest natural wonder.”

Another comment calls the idea “INSANE!”

The comments began pouring in after Zinke announced the proposal in late October and opened the idea up to public input for a 30-day period.

The extension of the Nov. 23 deadline to Dec. 22 came on the heels of a letter written by U.S. Sens. Steve Daines, R-Montana, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, who urged acting NPS Director Mike Reynolds to grant the public more time to respond.

“Although we respect the National Park Service’s attempt to find solutions for the deferred maintenance backlog, raising entrance fees to this degree could unfairly burden the public and create new barriers to the visitors that you hope to reach and inspire,” the senators wrote Nov. 14, 2017.

Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, said pricing is one tool to encourage visitors to time their arrival with less-crowded periods and help “drive the shoulder season.” However, he said fees should never become a deterrent.

Crandall suggested individual parks make determinations about where fee increases or new fees could be relevant, but discouraged a sweeping, across-the-board increase.

“The proposal that came out was overly simplistic and probably needed to be refined,” Crandall said. “A five-month peak season is the entire operating season for Glacier National Park, so you’re not driving the shoulder season you’re deterring visitors.

Crandall said he supports a bill proposed in Congress, the National Parks Restoration Act, which addresses the maintenance backlog by tapping royalties from federal onshore and offshore energy production. Legislative fixes like it, combined with targeted fee increases at certain parks, are a better solution to the National Park Service’s budget woes.

“It would be nice if we could find a nice silver bullet that will solve all life’s problems,” he said. “But life is not filled with problems where silver bullets work.”

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