Opinion: Proposed National Park Entry Fee a Shame

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Copyright 2017 Spokane Spokesman-Review

Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)


Seventy bucks to visit Mount Rainier or Glacier National Park? Rather than pay that outrageous fee, many families would simply stay home, and that would be a shame.

But that's the proposal from the U.S. National Park Service for the 17 most popular parks. The purported purpose is to address overdue park maintenance.

"We need to have a 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," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "Shoring up our parks' aging infrastructure will do that."

The current entrance fee per vehicle is $30, and more than doubling that might be acceptable if it were the solution to the huge maintenance backlog facing the National Park Service. But it won't even make a dent.

The Park Service collects about $200 million per year from entrance fees, which would increase to an estimated $268 million under the new price. The maintenance backlog is more than $11.3 billion (yes, billion).

Our decaying parks need work on roads, bridges, trails, restrooms, visitors centers and on and on.

But a Washington Post analysis finds that it would take 162 years for the fee increase to wipe out the current backlog. That doesn't include new maintenance costs that would arise over that span. Our grandkids' grandkids wouldn't have a better experience, just a far more expensive one.

That is, if they chose to visit one of the parks. That's a big "if" given the expense.

Moreover, the Trump administration is calling for a $297 million cut to the Park Service budget, which would be slightly more than total entrance fee collections under the $70 proposal. So overall, the agency would slip even further behind in maintaining parks.

The last fee increase - in 2015 - was $5, and park visits still increased. But a $40 increase would price out many Americans. The national park experience shouldn't be exclusive.

The massive backlog grew because the federal government began bleeding the National Park Service budget. It's taken a 40 percent hit over the last decade. The Park Service budget is less than 1 percent of the overall federal budget.

The proposed fee increase would be a Band-Aid on a gushing artery. The obvious solution is to increase the agency's budget, and a bipartisan bill in Congress would do just that. Last spring, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, proposed to increase the budget by $500 million a year for the next 50 years. This would be paid for from royalties the feds receive from oil and gas leases on government property.

If the goal is catch up on maintenance, that's the way to go. On Tuesday, the Park Service opened a 30-day comment period on the price increase. Tell them a $70 price tag that doesn't solve the problem is simply outrageous.

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