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Insights: Hiking national park fees picks winners and losers

Author: Joey Bunch - November 9, 2017 - Updated: November 12, 2017

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National ParksNational Parks Service employees work on a trail in the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior)

Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican father of our national parks, said it in 1906.

“The lack of power to take joy in outdoor nature is as real a misfortune as the lack of power to take joy in books,” the old Rough Rider said.

That’s why you find Teddy Roosevelt, and not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, creator of the New Deal, on Mount Rushmore, alongside Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.

We don’t view our national parks as handouts to be cut on the whims of Washington gamesmanship. We view them as treasures.

And now the Trump administration plans to make sure we pay a king’s ransom to use them. And it feels like just that, ransom.

The National Parks Service is ready to hike the cost — dramatically — for everyday people to visit what they already own during peak tourism seasons at 17 of the country’s most popular parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park.

It would soon cost $70 a car to take my out-of-state friends from Estes Park to Grand Lake, instead of the 20 bucks I’m used to paying. Motorcycle riders will pay $50 and bicyclists and hikers will pay $30 to get in.

The other parks are Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion in Utah; Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; Denali in Alaska; Glacier in Montana; Acadia in Maine; Olympic and Mount Rainier in Washington; Shenandoah in Virginia; and Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree in California.

The park service needs the money for a $12 billion backlog in repairs and improvements, because Congress and presidents won’t do their jobs and make sure parks are available and affordable to anyone who can get there, the idea Roosevelt had in his head and heart.

Poorly funding parks and public lands, however, has manufactured a shameful crisis. The sticker shock of a 250 percent increase in admission is the latest ploy to open up the lands to more drilling, foresting, hunting and off-roading for pay.

“We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said when he announced the price hike last week.​

That sounds similar, but not quite as complete as what he said at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver in July.

“Our great lands, our treasures, belong to us,” Zinke said.

But that was only part of his message in Colorado.

“I can tell ya, the war on American energy is over,” the former Montana congressman said.

But what Zinke didn’t say is that the administration will have a fight on its hands to bring more development to public lands, sacrificing a mantle conservationists can rally around — and win.

Scott Braden, public lands advocate for the Conservation Colorado, said “undoubtedly” the parks need more revenue and the maintenance backlog is real.

“Any economist would tell you that if you have too much demand, you should probably increase the price of the supply,” Braden told me.

“However, my concerns are twofold. One, is that the Trump budget and indeed appropriations over the last however many years of sequestration have further strained the ability of the NPS to carry out its mission. Shifting that cost burden to just the users of the parks is misguided, because national parks should be a national funding priority. Second, by increasing the costs of visiting parks, we make it harder to get kids outdoors, especially kids from poorer families and undeserved communities. This hurts our chances to educate and build the next generation of Americans who will care about parks and public lands.”

Zinke said the year before President Obama took office, the department made about $18 billion a year from offshore drilling, but the figure had fallen to just $2.6 billion last year.

He said the decline was an example of the “consequence of locking and shutting American energy, access and recreation off of our lands.”

Industry pays or you pay, get the picture?

Communities at the gates, such as Estes Park and Grand Lake, will certainly get it if tourism pays a price.

In 2015, more than 305 million people visited national parks, which was an all-time record. Visitors spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities.

Somebody always pays.

Politicians in both parties have no problem picking winners and losers, as long as their side wins.

The night before he visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Zinke said it disturbed him that people don’t trust the government anymore — “how far we’ve come from the government I grew up in; the government of Reagan, when the president would say something you knew it was true when our government was on our side.”

The public comment period on the fee hikes is open until Nov. 23. You can comment online at the National Park Service’s planning website or by mailing a letter to 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop 2346, Washington, D.C. 20240.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.


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