Proposed fee increases at national parks not popular in Powell

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Living close to Yellowstone National Park has its advantages. Many local residents venture to the park throughout the year — some even moved to the area to be near the natural beauty of northwest Wyoming. But the price may be going up.

Last week, the National Park Service announced its desire to increase the weekly entrance fee in 17 parks, including Grand Teton and Yellowstone National parks. Proposed price increases will rise as much as 180 percent in some parks; the two Wyoming parks’ passes will go up from $30 to $70 between May and October — an increase of 133 percent.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has said the fee increases would help address the national parks’ aging infrastructure, protecting and preserving them for future generations and helping provide a world-class experience for visitors.

For many traveling to the state to visit the parks, the fee will be a larger burden, but $70 isn’t going to break the bank on a family vacation, said Jeremy Barnum, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service.

“It’s important to point out that it’s a seven-day entrance fee. That’s just $10 a day,” Barnum said. “Nobody’s well served with aging infrastructure.”

Yet for local residents, the fee is troubling. Some fear it may scare tourists (and their local-economy-boosting vacation budgets) away from the area. Others worry the extra cost may limit the number of times they can make it to the park.

“It really hacks me off,” said Bob Funkhouser, a Powell resident who frequents the park.

Funkhouser and his wife, Georgia, head west to the park about once a week. They love to watch the wildlife, especially bears. The cost won’t affect them much. The Funkhousers buy yearly passes, which are not going up. But at their age, they have already seen an increase in the price of senior citizen passes.

The cost of senior passes — good at all national parks for the rest of the holder’s life — rose from $10 to $80 this summer.

“They just raised the rate quite a bit on the seniors. And you used to be able to travel between the Tetons and Yellowstone for one price. They’re going to get you anyway they can,” Funkhouser said.

Debbie Cloakey hasn’t been able to get to the park often since moving to Powell 17 years ago.

“I’ve only been there four or five times,” Cloakey said, explaining she always worked weekends, making it hard to get to the park. Now the fee increase has her worried when she finally has time to make the 90-minute trip to the East Entrance.

“That’s a pretty high jump. It could prohibit a lot of folks from going,” Cloakey said while on her daily walk with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Ember.

Judy Williams could understand an increase of $10, but she said an extra $40 was shocking to her.

“If we have to pay $70, we probably wouldn’t be going,” Williams said while finishing breakfast at the Skyline Cafe.

Williams, a Powell resident, typically visits the park twice a year.

Barnum points out that an annual pass is the best way to go for local families making multiple trips over a spread out period of time.

An annual pass to Yellowstone would rise from $70 to $75 under the proposal and annual passes good at all of the national parks continue to cost $80 “and are a great value,” Barnum said.

While Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tina Hoebelheinrich doesn’t know if a large fee increase is the best way to fix budget issues at the national parks, she still thinks the park is a great value for the money.

“A family of four would spend more than $70 to go to dinner or the movies. The value you get in return for your money at Yellowstone is great,” she said.

Yet Hoebelheinrich is concerned about how the park budget is structured. Record numbers of visitors are going to the park, but the park budget is stagnant, she said.

“There has been a moderate to no increase of the park’s budget in the past 10 years,” she said.

At the same time, a higher number of families with lower incomes enter through the East Gate than other entrances — and a large fee increase could affect Cody more than other entrance points, Hoebelheinrich said. The statistic translates to more budget-conscious families, seniors and visitors using the East Entrance. About 39 percent of families entering through the East Gate have incomes under $80,000, she said.

Barnum said the Park Service saw a budget increase of $34 million for infrastructure improvements, but there are 417 properties that have a chance at the relatively small amount. Due to the long-term underinvestment in parks by Congress, the infrastructure repair backlog has grown to an all-time high of nearly $12 billion.

Over half of the projects on the infrastructure repair backlog list are park road projects, such as Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Barnum also points out that the proposed fee increase isn’t set in stone.

“There isn’t just one solution and the fee proposal is just one option,” he said.

The fee increases were proposed at only the highest revenue producing parks where the increase is less likely to have a negative impact on visitation, Barnum said.

“These parks generate 70 percent of all revenue in the National Park Service,” he said.

Both Barnum and Hoebelheinrich encourage businesses and visitors to voice their concerns during the open public comment period.

“The more people voice their concerns, the better chances of a favorable impact,” Hoebelheinrich said.

The majority of national parks will remain free to enter, according to the park system. Only 118 of 417 park sites charge an entrance fee.

The public comment deadline is Nov. 23. Comments can be submitted online at tinyurl.com/parkincrease. Written comments can be sent to National Park Service, Recreation Fee Program, 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, D.C. 20240.

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