August 21, 2019
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Trump’s park fee hike is suspect, but should spark needed debate

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
People watch as waves crash at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park last month.

A proposal to raise entrance fees at some of the nation’s most visited national parks was met with immediate outcry last week. That is unfortunate because the fee increase could lead to important, and needed, discussions about park maintenance and managing visitation, particularly at parks that are already overcrowded.

The National Park Service has proposed to increase weekly entrance fees at 17 parks, including Acadia National Park, from $25 to $70 per vehicle during the peak summer season. The service said revenue from the fee increases would be used to improve the parks.

This is not an outrageous increase. In fact, $70 for a week of access to hiking, biking, boating and sightseeing for a family or other groups of people is a bargain. Private attractions near Acadia National Park can cost families hundreds of dollars a day. For the average national park visitor, entrance fees account for about 10 percent of the total cost of a trip. Overnight accommodations account for 30 percent and restaurant meals are another 20 percent.

Opponents of the fee increase, including Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, worry that it could reduce visitation to national parks, including Acadia. The senators opposed the fee plan in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday. “We believe an immediate increase of this magnitude to the fees at Acadia … poses a risk to the growing visitation at Acadia,” the senators wrote in their letter.

This is a valid concern and the fee increase proposal should spark a needed discussion about the use, and, in some cases overuse, of our national parks. Many of the 17 targeted parks, especially Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, are overwhelmed with visitors, especially during peak seasons. Traffic jams clog roads and increase air pollution. Parking lots at popular spots are overflowing with vehicles parking on roads and fragile landscapes. Trails are being unintentionally widened by growing numbers of hikers. Toilet and camping facilities are overwhelmed.

Some parks already require shuttle buses to get to popular spots, and some are considering reservations systems.

While discussions of minimizing overuse must happen soon, few trust the Trump administration to be an honest broker in such work. The administration has made it clear that it values the public lands overseen by the Department of Interior more for the minerals underground and the trees that can be cut from them than for their beauty, history and non-motorized recreational appeal.

At the same time that the park service says it needs to raise entrance fees to help cover the cost of maintenance and improvements, the Trump budget would cut national park spending by 13 percent, including cuts to operations and maintenance spending. If the park service needs more money, as the Trump administration argues in the fee increase proposal, now is not the time to cut its budget. And, as Collins and King wrote, there are other ways, such as increased use of volunteer groups and dedicated revenue funds, that the park service could fund its backlog of maintenance.

In addition to cutting funding for public lands, the Trump administration is changing the mission of the Interior Department to include less of a focus on preserving public lands and more emphasis on exploiting them for oil, gas, coal, grazing and other damaging activities.

A draft of the department’s new strategic plan, obtained by The Nation, emphasizes the energy resources of public lands much more than the previous plans. The grammar-challenged document says the department is “committed to achieve and maintain American energy dominance through responsible productivity of the public lands for the multiple use and economic benefit of present and future generations.” It also mentions the “vast amounts of untapped energy reserves on public lands.”

Given the Trump administration’s devaluing of public land, including national parks, the timing of the fee increase is suspect. That’s a shame because it will stall necessary debate over how best to manage these lands for the American public.

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