In his short time as head of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has gotten himself mired in one controversy after another.
However, none of his actions so far has threatened to hit Montanans as hard in the pocketbooks as the proposal to dramatically hike entrance fees for some of the nation’s most popular public places, including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
If this wallet-pinching proposal goes through as planned and you find yourself shelling out more than twice as much to enter Glacier National Park this next summer than you paid last summer, you have Zinke to thank.
With Zinke’s full-throated support, last week the National Park Service announced its new proposal to raise the entrance fees at 17 national parks during “peak season,” which is May through September for most parks. The seven-day fee for a single car will jump from $30 to $70; the per-person fee will double from $15 to $30; and the motorcycle fee will also double from $25 to $50.
The rationale is that the additional revenue is needed to pay for a long backlog of park infrastructure and maintenance projects. Yet the fee increase is expected to scrape up only an extra $70 million – while the maintenance backlog is priced at more than $11 billion.
This “targeted fee increase” is only planned for parks struggling to handle growing numbers of visitors, presumably because the increase in price is expected to deter at least some potential visitors. Of course, they will be those least able to afford the higher fees – and that includes a great deal of Montanans.
One of the primarily benefits of living in Montana is the relative proximity to places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. The state’s low-income families might never be able to plan a plane trip to, say, Everglades National Park in Florida, but they could always load the family into a car and behold the world-class wonders in Montana’s own backyard. Every fee increase puts that dream further out of reach. It also flies in the face of the foundational purpose of national parks, which are public lands shared by every United States citizen and therefore open to every citizen.
Montana’s national parks also provide a well-known economic benefit. According to the most recent numbers from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, the majority – two-thirds – of tourism dollars in the state were spent around Glacier or Yellowstone. Tourists spent more than $1 billion in Glacier Country alone.
Of course, Glacier National Park also set a new record for attendance this year, with more than 3.3 million visitors counted through September. This was despite the wildfires, smoke and other weather-related events at the park that forced the unanticipated early closure of large sections of the park.
Crowding at Montana’s national parks and others is a valid concern, but solutions should not include shutting the gates on the nation’s poorest families. It’s already a major challenge to manage the flow of visitors in such a way as to minimize wear and tear on roads and facilities, prevent harm to wildlife and natural features, and avoid dangerous human-wildlife interactions – and all with limited funding. President Trump’s proposal, which Zinke supports, would cut National Park Service’s nearly $3 billion budget by 13 percent.
Let’s not overlook, either, the fact that the National Park Service does not yet have a permanent director. The previous director, Jonathan Jarvis, left his post on Jan 3, and Acting Director Mike Reynolds is currently in charge of overseeing the agency’s network of more than 400 sites. As an acting director, Reynolds lacks the authority to make fee changes. Thus, responsibility for the proposed entrance fee increases truly resides at the top with Zinke.
Yet this is not a new trend. An Obama administration-era increase in senior lifetime passes to national parks, approved by Congress, sparked justifiable outrage across the country and forced the National Park Service to backpedal by proposing a “payment plan” so more seniors could actually afford a pass. The Senior Pass, which was free up until about 20 years ago, went from $10 to a whopping $80 this August. That’s an especially egregious increase considering that the majority of senior citizens live on a fixed budget.
Even as American public faces more potential barriers to public land access, Zinke is working diligently to make it easier for private energy companies to profit off of public resources. A slate of secretarial orders issued from his office seeks to expand areas to energy leasing, expedite the permitting process and roll back environmental regulations.
Montanans who had hoped that Zinke would abide by his promise to protect public access should be disappointed – but not silent. Public comment on the proposed fee increases will be accepted until Nov. 23. Montanans can join the national movement to condemn this terrible idea online at parkplanning.nps.gov/proposedpeakseasonfeerates or by mail to 1859 C Street NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, D.C. 20240.
-- The Missoulian