Interior Department officials on Thursday completely backed off a proposal to increase entrance fees at some national parks, opting instead for an across-the-board $5 increase at all parks that charge visitors to enter.
The proposal marks a significant turn from a plan in October to increase peak-season entrance fees at 17 popular parks from $25 to $70 — the largest increase since World War II — to help pay for the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion infrastructure backlog.
But a wave of angry public comments to the proposal convinced Interior that the fee hike might backfire and lead to a decline in visitation, causing revenue to crater. Two annual passes, including the popular “America the Beautiful” pass, would remain at $80. Under the updated increase, the Park Service stands to add about $60 million by year’s end.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the new proposal in a statement that included a nod to Americans who rebuked the earlier plan. “I want to thank the American people who made their voices heard through the public comment process on the original fee proposal,” the secretary said. “Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases at the 117 fee-charging parks as opposed to larger increases proposed for 17 highly-visited national parks.”
The fees would take effect starting June. Using Yosemite National Park as an example, the Park Service said its seven-day vehicle pass would increase from $30 to $35. At least one park, Crater Lake National Park, would see a $10 increase to its specific $40 annual pass on June 1 and a $5 increase to its $20-per-vehicle entry fee. It would increase by another $5 in June 2020.
Interior signaled in the first week in April that its earlier proposal was in trouble when a department official said: “We’re working to respond to those … thoughtful and well-put comments” that railed against the plan. “Our ultimate goal when it comes to entrance fees is to make sure the parks get 80 percent of that revenue … but we also don’t want to put a burden on our visitors.”
The official’s statement followed Zinke’s backpedaling on the plan during congressional hearings in March. In response to questions from concerned committee members, he said the agency was undecided about the rates and looking at alternatives. At a House hearing that same week, he said the aim was to not hurt families.
An analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association showed that 98 percent of 110,000 public comments opposed the dramatic increase.
“Fees do have a role to play in our parks, and the administration’s move to abandon its original proposal in favor of more measured fee increases will put additional funds into enhancing park experiences without threatening visitation or local economies,” said Theresa Pierno, the association’s president and chief executive. NPCA was among the first groups to denounce it in October.
“This is a prime example that activism works,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat of the House Natural Resources Committee and a frequent critic of Zinke. “The American people raised their concerns, participated in the public comment period and made sure that the Trump White House knew that the proposal was unpopular. If it wasn’t for the power of the people, Secretary Zinke would have gone ahead with his ridiculous proposal.”