EDITORIAL: Final Yellowstone fee plan an improvement

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Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it was backing off its plans to more than double the entrance fees charged at the country’s most popular national parks, including Yellowstone.

The cost of a one-week pass to Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks will soon rise from $30 to $35. However, the rates will not shoot all the way up to $70, as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke initially proposed last year.

We didn’t like the idea of doubling the cost of visiting our country’s greatest treasurers — and, apparently, neither did many other Americans.

The National Park Service reported receiving 109,000 comments on the original fee proposal. According to an analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association, roughly 98 percent of those remarks opposed the government’s plan.

As we wrote in this space last year, the initial proposal ran the risk of putting spectacular public places like Yellowstone off-limits to people of more limited means. Beyond that, driving down the number of park visitors could hurt our many tourist-dependent businesses.

We’re glad to see a more modest increase — and pleased to see that our government responded to the flood of negative feedback.

In a statement announcing the lower increases, Secretary Zinke specifically thanked those who submitted comments.

“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,” Zinke said.

We would be more enthused about the switch if it didn’t feel a bit like the feds followed the children’s adage, “If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse.” And when you get into the details, the federal government stands to get something closer to a horse than a kitten.

As Zinke’s statement explains, the new proposal is a trade off: Instead of dramatically raising rates at just the most popular sites, the Park Service is imposing smaller hikes at many more places.

Under the new plan, visitors to our national parks are expected to pay another $60 million in entrance fees each year. That’s not too far off from the initial proposal, which was expected to raise around $68.6 million.

Whether intentional or not, the big changes proposed in the first plan have obscured the fact that visitors are still being asked to pony up tens of millions of dollars. (For instance, the National Parks Conservation Association declared on its blog, “Administration Backs Off Massive Park Fee Hike.”)

In any event, the new proposal is clearly preferable for us in Wyoming, as it won’t just be visitors at Yellowstone, Grand Teton and 15 other sites picking up the $60-plus million tab; it will be shared by those who stop by 100 other parks, too.

But while we appreciate the end result, it joins a list of recent Yellowstone proposals that park officials have had to walk back. Complaints from locals and others prompted park officials to decrease the last price hike they proposed in 2015 and, more recently, shorten the amount of time that Fishing Bridge will be closed for construction this fall. We appreciate how receptive federal officials have been to local feedback, but we can’t help but wonder if more extensive outreach and communication would help them get it right the first time around.

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