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America’s national parks have fallen into neglect and disrepair after decades of underfunding of their upkeep and operations.

The National Park Service estimates that the 417 National Parks need $11.3 billion in deferred maintenance. That backlog is evident in Yellowstone National Park where popular trails remain closed for years for lack of money to rebuild, where roads wear out much faster than they are repaved, where a recent 40 percent increase in visitors brought virtually no increase in restrooms, parking, road capacity or visitor centers.

The Trump administration proposed a federal budget that would slash NPS funding, including cutting 1,200 employees and reducing deferred maintenance by $34 million, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Last month, the administration announced that it would tackle the park maintenance backlog — by raising entrance fees at 17 of the most popular parks, including Yellowstone and Glacier.

According to the NPS, the plan outlined would raise about $70 million a year in revenue. That’s not enough to take a bite out of the $11.3 billion backlog. It wouldn’t even keep the backlog from growing.

A bipartisan group of 12 senators (none from Montana or Wyoming) introduced a bill in March that would authorize using $500 million in oil and gas revenues for park maintenance every year through 2047. That’s the size of investment needed to reduce the backlog and preserve these national treasures for our children.

The National Park Service Legacy Act ought to become law, but it hasn’t even had a hearing yet in the committee chaired by Montana Sen. Steve Daines.

Unpopular as a fee increase is, Yellowstone and Glacier need the resources to handle the surge in visitors. For the safety of visitors, the quality of their park experience and the preservation of historic and natural wonders, NPS must have money to shrink the maintenance backlog.

A peak-season fee increase can be justified only if all of the proceeds stay in the park where it’s collected. The Interior Department proposed 20 percent would be used in other parks. Diverting any more entrance fee money from the park where it's collected is unacceptable. Every one of the 17 parks on the fee increase list has needs that greatly outstrip what the proposed fee increase would cover.

However, considering the dire need to maintain our parks, a peak-season fee increase is reasonable if:

-- It’s less than the proposed $40 per private vehicle and set with public input.

-- 100 percent of collections stays in the park where collected.

-- Peak-fee funded projects are publicly identified.

-- The peak-fee money is strictly accounted for.

-- Peak-season fees aren’t used to supplant federal funding.

-- Fee-free days are offered and publicized.

Park visitors now pay $30 per private vehicle for a seven-day pass to Yellowstone. The NPS proposal would raise that to $70 starting in May 2018. That’s too soon and too steep.

Along with the private vehicle fee increase during peak season, NPS proposed raising fees charged for visitors who come to the parks on commercial tours starting in 2019. The estimate of $70 million in peak season fee revenue includes $18 million from commercial tours, according to an NPS spokesperson.

The NPS proposal notes that commercial tour entrance fees haven’t been raised since 1998 when they were first implemented under a federal law enacted a few years earlier.

Fees charged by tour operators certainly have increased since 1998. The tour business is booming in Yellowstone. In 2016, the number of buses entering the park doubled and bus tours increased again this year.

The National Park Service set a too-short comment period — scheduled to end on Thanksgiving Day. The comment period was extended for 30 days, according to Daines' office, after he requested an extension.

So there's still time to speak up. Go to the NPS link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com

Yellowstone and the other great Western parks need maintenance money now. Fees can help with a sliver of the need; Congress must act on the rest.

-- The Billings Gazette

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