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Will paying more to see national parks like Utah’s Zion help fix the backlog of maintenance problems?

Sen. Mike Lee is among those blasting a proposed $70 entrance fee as ‘extortion,’ but Park Service says the pricing is reasonable compared with other destinations.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A hiker looks into the valley floor of Zion Canyon from the top of Angel's Landing Trail in Zion National Park. The National Park Service is considering raising the price of entry at Zion and 16 other busy parks to $70 per vehicle.

When the National Park Service quietly began the review that led to its new proposal to hike park entrance fees, officials say they looked at what people pay to get into other “family-oriented venues.”

The nation’s parks — including Utah’s “Mighty Five” — operate at a chronic financial deficit, yet even with federal subsidies, postponed maintenance has come to exceed $11 billion in backlogged projects. So in a surprise announcement Tuesday, the park service released a proposal to get visitors to cover a larger share of park costs.

In light of what families typically pay for travel, recreation and accommodations, charging $70 per vehicle still seems like a bargain, National Park Service (NPS) spokesman Jeff Olson said.

But if even the proposal has a free-market logic to it, Utah’s Republican members of Congress aren’t buying.

At a town hall-style teleconference Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee called the proposed park fees “extortionate” and “wrong,” among other choice adjectives while excoriating the park service.

“That’s obscene,” Lee told constituents. “We can’t allow that to happen. These guys have got an enormous amount of land under their management and if they managed it in a reasonable, sensible way with what we’ve already been spending on those projects, they wouldn’t have to spend $70 per person.”

Actually, the proposal is $70 per vehicle, a price that covers a family’s week of access at one of 17 marquee parks — including Utah’s Canyonlands, Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon — during the busy season.

Either way, Lee said the agency has no business charging that much.

“Nobody in their right mind would charge that amount to enter a park that wasn’t under the control of a federal government,” said Lee, among the Senate’s most conservative members, who rode the tea party wave into office in 2010. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that just because they happen to be government employees.”

But some park service retirees blame Congress, which they say has failed to adjust the parks budget in step with rising costs — even as millions more flock to these treasured destinations.

The NPS budget, expressed as a percentage of the federal budget, has plunged by two-thirds, from 0.2 percent to 0.07 percent, since the 1980s, according to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which responded with shock to the proposal.

“Back in the 1970s, 70 percent of the budget was for staff. Now it’s up around 90 percent,” said Phil Francis, the coalition’s vice chairman. “That means it’s hard to buy new equipment and hire seasonals.”

With budgets not keeping pace with rising costs — even as parks were added to the system — park managers made due by deferring maintenance. Francis contends the fee hike would meet less than 1 percent of the current backlog.

“It’s better than nothing, but it is certainly not going to significantly address our backlog or our annual deficiency of $400 million,” said Francis, who retired as superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway on the Virginia-North Carolina border in 2013.

“The increase is too much, too soon,” he said. “Congress needs to step up to the plate. We have used volunteers. We have used friends groups. We have gone through every park looking for efficiencies.”

Last year, the agency’s budget stood at $3 billion, but now President Donald Trump is proposing a 13 percent cut, potentially costing up to 1,200 jobs. This, despite three straight years of record park visitation, reaching 331 million nationwide last year.

The proposed fee hike would apply to 17 high-use parks, which account for 70 percent of the system’s total visits, during their busiest five-month windows. This runs from May through September for Zion, Arches and Canyonlands (which have a joint fee), and Bryce Canyon. No entrances fees are charged at 299 park locations, although it costs $10 to drive into Utah’s Capitol Reef, which will raise the fee to $15 on Jan. 1.

Critics observe that such a fee boost would create an incentive for people to visit Arches and Zion during two of those parks’ busiest months, April and October, when the entrance fee would be at the current $25 and $30, respectively. Both those parks are struggling with congestion and are developing plans that could result in reservation systems.

The proposed fee restructure would also encourage visitors to buy an annual systemwide pass, costing $80, which could lead to dip in revenue.

Still, NPS has estimated the fee restructuring would lift gate revenue by 43 percent to $268.5 million.

“We can’t say, ‘It’s not enough money so we are not going to do that,’ ” Olson said. “We are not saying it’s the best way. When you make a proposal you sit back and listen. We are listening to comments just like this and they will be seriously considered.”

In the first 24 hours of the public comment period that runs until Nov. 23, more than 6,000 comments were submitted.

To arrive at the proposed fee of $70 per vehicle, or $30 per individual without a vehicle, NPS officials considered what a family pays at other destinations. Olson did not name what comparable sites were studied, but a day at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, for example, costs a family of four $76 if they include a planetarium show.

Olson also noted that the parks service has several programs to subsidize park access for key groups. All families with a fourth-grader are entitled to a free pass, as are those with disabilities and active members of the military. Seniors can buy a lifetime pass for $80.

But the new proposal seems excessive, according to Utah Rep. Mia Love.

“We recognize the importance of addressing deferred maintenance and improving infrastructure, but we are concerned that a steep increase in fees would make it more difficult for Americans to access and enjoy the public lands that have been rightfully ours for generations,” the Republican lawmaker wrote Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday in a joint letter with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

National parks are key economic drivers for nearby communities, where decent employment can be hard to find, she noted.

“Large fee increases in our national parks will discourage the tourism that sustains these communities,” the congresswomen wrote. “We should be doing everything we can to ensure rural communities have opportunities to succeed.”

Reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.

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