Park fee hike gets a closer look as comment deadline approaches

WYOMING – Since the proposal to increase fees at select parks in the national park system was first announced in late October, more information has been fleshed out concerning the potential ramifications of the plan.

Research conducted by University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research [Thinking Outside the Park] released recently suggests the fee hikes would drive down visitation and hurt locals most.

A $40 increase on a $30 entrance fee is a large change for local visitors within an hour or two’s drive to the park, yet rather small for an international traveler paying more than $1,000 per airline ticket,” stated the report’s lead author Jeremy Sage. “At $70, concerns may be legitimately raised that many families are being priced out of visiting the major national parks in the US. As such, the rationale behind the increased revenue strategy should be questioned.”

Some talk of targeting higher fees toward foreign visitors—both out-of-state and out-of-country—has been entertained by some federal lawmakers in states bordering Yellowstone: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

If locals within a few hours’ drive to the select parks where an increase in fees has been proposed during peak season are feeling unfairly targeted, there is a growing concern that the 17 parks in play—and perhaps the American West, in general—are being unduly singled out.

Fee increase whacks Wyoming hardest

Jason Williams, founder and CEO of Wildlife Safaris in Jackson, says the fee increases would put dozens of local tour companies out of business. Williams said his company would take a significant hit but worse than the crunch it will put on his business, he is opposed to the way the plan adversely affects western states and the Greater Yellowstone Region, specifically, potentially without actually getting much-needed capital to the neediest parks.

“This is a proposal done with a hammer rather than a scalpel,” Williams said. “I understand the National Park Service needs to raise more money. Entrance fees should be raised. But this plan punishes the west and our community unfairly, and the money it generates may never get to the parks that need it.”

There are 417 parks in the NPS system. Of those, 118 collect fees. Of the 118 paid parks, 17 are being proposed to bear the financial burden of closing a $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, and two of those 17 are in our backyard, as Williams points out.

“In the best-case scenario, this fee increase will raise an estimated $70 million,” Williams said. “The biggest risk here is everyone will buy an annual pass for $80 (good for a year at any national park) rather than spend $70 for seven days in Grand Teton and, say, another $70 for a week in Yellowstone.”

At $80, the annual passes look like a deal if entrance fees at GTNP and Yellowstone more than double next summer. The problem is, unlike the local 7-day pass, where a majority of that money stays at the local park where it was purchased, revenue generated from annual passes mostly heads to Washington where it is divvied back out to all the parks in the system.

Further, the Department of Interior is once again facing budget cuts, as is the National Park Service. Some worry the additional $70M generated by increasing fees at 17 national parks will merely be absorbed into addressing budget shortfalls.

At any rate, an argument could be made that the plan to increase gate fees for Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks unfairly burdens both locals and gateway communities like Jackson, Cody, and West Yellowstone in general.

“Smoky Mountains [National Park] is free. Last year, they had nearly 11 million visitors,” Williams said. “Why not charge a nominal five-dollar fee there? That alone would generate $55 million.”

Fee increase may encourage more traffic

As far as commercial operators offering tours in Grand Teton and Yellowstone, proposed increase in fees for these entities would appear to discourage the very type of travel overcrowded parks are trying to boost.

“The commercial tour component of the proposed increase is such a deal-breaker it will put many small operators out of business,” Williams said. “The application of a peak entrance fee to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone would lead to commercial tour fees more than tripling. This change means that local tour companies like ours will be paying up to $740 per day, plus $10 in permit fees, to take a small group to Yellowstone from Jackson Hole given the need to transit through two national parks. To add insult to injury our guests will not even get a park pass to use to get back into the parks. They would be required to buy another pass when they transit back through the park on their own.”

Williams said visitors will likely be deterred from enjoying the park with commercial tour companies who provide benefits like getting vehicles off the road, offering highly-trained guides, and providing first-responder service for under-staffed parks.

Alternative funding solutions?

Williams believes one place the government can look to for park funding is right in front of their noses. A key component of the National Parks Legacy Act would syphon off $500 million a year from offshore drilling permits and taxes to go toward the National Park Service. The bipartisan bill has received support from the Wyoming delegation and the US Chamber of Commerce. It is currently being considered in the House and Senate.

After receiving more than 65,000 responses, the NPS extended the comment period another month through December 22.

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