The public comment period ends next month on a federal proposal to nearly triple visitor fees to the nation’s most popular national parks. Those include Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks where visitors would pay $70 in peak months (up from $25) starting this May.
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell convened a group of outdoor enthusiasts to make a case against the plan. Among the panel of speakers at Cantwell’s rally was Michelle Piñon, who introduced herself as a daughter of immigrants, raised in intercity Los Angeles, alongside toxic wastelands, immigration raids and unchecked poverty. She said green spaces were scarce and she knew nothing of America’s national parks.
“These lands, these parks provide an opportunity for healing for those most vulnerable among us,” she said.
She’s now a volunteer coordinator with Latino Outdoors in Washington State and says when she first discovered the crisp clean air, starry nights and sense of refuge offered by a national park it was sublime.
“Even now, my heart beats a little bit faster thinking about that moment when I realized that even amidst hostility, even amidst crushing social inequities, there are places so truly grand, that have the power of bringing us together,” Piñon said.
She says the parks offer a unique place for society’s most vulnerable people to heal, but not if the entry fee becomes unaffordable. That message was echoed by several others at the event who argued that the proposed fees are so high that they threaten to keep most people away.
Cantwell says the proposal could actually reduce revenue that is badly needed for the $11-billion backlog of infrastructure upgrades and repairs. She says right now, outdoor recreation in Washington State creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions in consumer spending and taxes.
“That is why we don’t want to have a park fee that could be so detrimental to that economy,” Cantwell said.
On Monday, Cantwell said she was pushing for an extension of the public comment period beyond Thanksgiving. Late Monday night, the Parks Service quietly extended the comment period till December 22nd. Cantwell says she'll work with colleagues to stop the fee increase. Among the alternative ideas to fund the parks’ maintenance backlog is a bi-partisan proposal known as the National Parks Service Legacy Act. Rob Smith, Northwest Director of the National Parks Conservation Association, says his group is backing the bill, which has bi-partisan support in both chambers of Congress.
“What that does is it would tap unallocated mineral revenues, like offshore oil royalties that go into the general treasury now but can be spent any way,” he said.
“Why not spend them on America’s best idea and the most popular thing we have, which is America’s national parks? They bring in billions every year and the need is for millions, so it’s affordable.”
Smith says even if the increased park fees did not reduce attendance, the money raised would be less than one percent of what’s actually needed.
He also says the National Parks Service recently went through a process of reviewing its visitor fees, in the run-up to its centennial. That involved 7 months of study, multiple public meetings and a 60-day comment period. In response, NPS raised fees slightly, but only enough to avoid pricing people out.
Cantwell says a similar, wide-ranging conversation needs to happen now in Congress, with a full set of hearings, to determine how to effectively fund the National Parks Service for the next 100 years, without reducing revenue that comes from the outdoor economy.
(Note: this story was updated on Tuesday, November 11th to reflect the National Parks Service's extended comment period on the fee proposal.)