Open your wallet; visit a national park

  • Two Medicine checking station and Rising Wolf Mtn., 1930s

    Geo. A. Grant/Historic

It's 1911 and your grandparents are braving mountain roads to visit the year-old Glacier National Park.

The charge: $4 to cover everyone in their black Model T.

Now jump ahead to 1996. You're braving the roads to Glacier as your grandparents did before you. But though your burgundy Volvo station wagon is new, the fee you pay is old: $5 to cover everyone in the car. It's an attractive if archaic price for park visitors to pay.

"They wouldn't even let you park your car for $5," says Jerry Nelson, Glacier's fee coordinator.

Park entrance fee legislation is a Capitol Hill perennial; it keeps coming up and it keeps getting mowed down. The Reagan administration repeatedly sought higher park entrance fees, with minimal success. Congress last approved a park entrance fee increase in 1987, but even then retained the power to specify which parks can charge fees: Only 133 out of 367 national park units currently charge them.

But the 104th Congress, though ultimately unproductive in many other public-lands issues, may be the golden one for park fees. Not only could fees rise nationwide, they would be collected in a whole new way and the parks themselves would benefit instead of the general U.S. Treasury.

The House Resources Committee has approved legislation lifting the long-standing entrance fee caps that Congress imposed on national parks, monuments and historic sites. Equally important, the bill takes Congress out of the business of setting park entrance fees. The Interior Department would gain the discretion to ratchet up what visitors pay.

And, instead of visitors paying a per-car fee, the Park Service could charge per-person fees. Get enough family members stuffed into that Volvo, and that could add up, especially as children under 16 could also be charged. The legislation approved by committee on a 26-12 vote would also distribute back to individual parks some of the money they collected.

Still, Park Service officials caution they don't want future Congresses to exploit higher entrance fees as justification for reduced park funding. The legislation addresses this, with language citing a minimum appropriation for parks based on fiscal 1995 funding levels.

What that legislation will look like in its final form remains unclear. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has yet to act on its own version of park fee legislation. When the House bill authored by Utah Republican James Hansen hits the floor later this spring, it will likely hit some Democratic road bumps. During House committee consideration, Democrats like Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico complained about the proposed end to $10 Golden Age Passports for those aged 62 and older. Current passes would be honored, but new ones would no longer be issued.

"The Park Service recognizes the reality of life that fees are going to go up," National Park Service spokesman David Barna said. "It's a (question) of how much they're going to go up."

The sentiment is acutely felt out in the field. Park veterans like Doug Caldwell, public information officer for Rocky Mountain National Park, note that entrance fees have stayed low for so long that officials don't really know how much more the public might willingly pay. Charge even a tad too much, officials fear, and the park gates could slam shut for some visitors.

Last year, the Park Service collected about $80 million in entrance fees. Agency officials hope that by collecting more and distributing it back to parks they can help alleviate a maintenance backlog now estimated at several billion dollars worth of repairs to cracked roads, run-down electrical systems, destroyed trails and employee housing.

"It would be very positive," Nelson said.

The House legislation, amended since it was first introduced, sets the $80 million as a base. Any amount collected above that in future years would be considered new revenue. The parks would share 75 percent of that new revenue based on the amount of their own entrance fees.

That formula, of course, would most help popular destinations like Yosemite, which collected $2.8 million last year. Glacier took in a relatively modest $975,613, and so would get less back. Parks might also see fewer visitors because of higher fees, though the fall-off may not last long or be very widespread.

"People don't mind paying more for government services if they can see what it's going for," said Judy Kunofsky, executive director of the private Yosemite Restoration Trust. "We've always supported the idea that entrance fees should be based on the number of persons rather than by car."

The legislation exempts some parks in Alaska. The chairman of the House Resources Committee is Republican Don Young of Alaska. Coincidence? Of course not. But then, as with park fees, some things in politics are the same as in the days of your grandparents' Model T.

Michael Doyle is a reporter in the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers.

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