No Easy Answer

How much, exactly, is access to the country’s most pristine lands worth?

By Kellyn Brown

In a largely expected move, the Department of the Interior backed off its plan to double entrance fees to popular national parks, including Glacier, and will instead raise the price of admission by a modest $5 to $35. Annual passes will increase from $50 to $70.

The original proposal to raise fees by so much was a surprise to begin with. While the park is worth nearly any cost and has a legitimate backlog of maintenance needs, such a drastic increase would have indeed priced out some families.

Our parks are known to attract middle- and lower-class Americans who pile their families into a vehicle to spend a week of their summer vacation camping in our wild lands for an affordable price. Still, additional increases are surely on the horizon as our parks attract more and more people each year, which only raises more questions. How will park crews keep up with additional wear and tear? How many more resources will be needed to handle the influx of visitors? How much, exactly, is access to the country’s most pristine lands worth?

It’s true that we already pay taxes to fund our public lands. It’s also true that it’s not nearly enough. Glacier’s budget is already subsidized by nonprofits that raise money for projects throughout the park. But as funding has failed to keep pace with demand, the Park Service has continued to have to do more with less.

To be sure, when the Interior proposed such a steep increase to address some of those needs, the opposition was nearly universal. Of the 109,000 public comments submitted to the Interior Department, nearly all of them (98 percent) were opposed. And many of those commenters used colorful language in their opposition. “$70 is insane!” read one comment, “What the hell? You need to go to Congress, get them to fund NPS.” “Having to pay $70 just to get in would definitely make me consider other options for our family vacation,” read another.

Moreover, politicians from both sides of the aisle opposed the move, with Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines praising the change of heart: “Montana’s national parks must remain affordable and accessible to all visitors” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester added: “We need to find better, more effective ways to address the pressing maintenance backlog that don’t nickel-and-dime Montana families.”

But the parks are still in a pinch. Glacier had its busiest year on record last year, surpassing 3 million visitors. Meanwhile, the maintenance backlog keeps growing. In 2016, the National Park Service estimated deferred maintenance needs of more than $11 billion with about $150 million in Glacier alone.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the former Whitefish lawmaker and U.S. congressman, was perhaps too ambitious in addressing the national parks’ persistent maintenance backlog. To his credit, he also factored in the widespread opposition to the plan when settling on smaller increases. “Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases,” he said.

The needs, however, are only growing, especially after last year’s fire season damaged trails in the park and burned down the beloved 104-year-old Sperry Chalet.

There’s no easy answer if Congress doesn’t substantially increase National Park Service funding, which seems unlikely. And finding a balance between what is considered affordable to park visitors and what national parks actually need to operate remains elusive.

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