Proposed $70 national park fee would hurt rural businesses, Utah governor tells Interior Department

(AP file photo) Hikers look up at a fast moving storm as it makes its way through Zion National Park outside of Springdale, as seen in 2015. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is urging the Interior Department to reconsider a proposal for raising entrance fees at many of the nation’s marquee national parks, saying it could hurt park visitation, Utah’s tourism industry and rural businesses.

The National Park Service’s proposed $70 entry fee at marquee parks, including four in Utah, could “devastate” small rural businesses and depress park visitation, while doing little to address the $11 billion maintenance backlog at the nation’s 413-site park system, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says.

Herbert’s Dec. 19 comments were among thousands submitted to the Interior Department on the proposed fee hike, most of them panning the idea the agency announced seemingly out of the blue a few months ago.

“Tourism is an integral part of Utah’s economy and the lifeblood of many rural communities,” the Republican governor wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Park visitors who come from all over the world sustain the economic well-being of nearby residents.

Travelers spent $8.4 billion in Utah last year, generating $1.2 billion in tax revenues and supporting 144,000 jobs.

The fee restructure would apply to Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon. Like many others, Herbert is concerned about funding disparities that would arise should the service restructure fees at 17 of the busiest parks, nearly tripling them during a five-month peak season.

Other Utah leaders and businesses also find fault with the fee hike, which estimates say will lift gate revenues 43 percent, or by $268.5 million.

Some are concerned that the hike could decrease revenue, at least at some parks, because it would push many visitors to purchase the annual system-wide pass for $80, which gets a family into all 100 parks that charge entry fees.

Under park service policy, 80 percent of the entry fees, including proceeds from annual pass sales, remain with the park where they were collected. This could benefit Zion at the expense of, say, Bryce Canyon or Capitol Reef, which aren’t typically a first stop for Utah tourists on a swing through national parks.

Meanwhile, other critics fear a hefty gate charge will keep people out of the parks altogether, especially families who are economically constrained and tour parks in the summer when school is out.

“We have to be sure we are methodical on what we are doing to make sure we don’t scare 2 million people away,” said Breck Dockstader, owner of Springdale’s Cliffrose Lodge at the entrance to Zion.

Springdale’s economy is geared toward 4.3 million visitors that came to Zion this year, so a downturn in visits would pose a hardship to the community unless visitors can be persuaded to extend their stays, Dockstader added.

Recent polling, commissioned by Outdoor Alliance for Kids, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say they would be less likely to visit a park if the fee were increased. Those polled say boosting federal funding would be a better approach than increasing fees, by 72 percent versus 28 percent.

And 92 percent of those polled say access to national parks provides kids with valuable opportunities to connect with the natural world.

“There are so many barriers already,” said Jes Ward, executive director of the Denver-based youth-engagement organization cityWILD. “A lot of folks who may struggle with income and transportation, they already feel it’s expensive. Increasing the fee increases the barriers. A lot of low-income families won’t stay for a week, so it really is a daily use fee.”

In his comments, Herbert urged Zinke to develop “creative solutions” for the parks’ maintenance woes and myriad other challenges, which include overcrowding and inadequate funding. While the fee hike applies only to the busy months around summer, Herbert said he does not believe it would push visitation into off-peak periods.

The Utah Board of Tourism Development is recommending innovative fee strategies, public-private partnerships and funding adjustments in lieu of the price increases, according to the governor.

“We strongly encourage deep engagement with the private sector early in the planning process to protect economic interests in the rural areas surround national parks,” Herbert wrote. “Our national parks are remarkable reminders of America’s heritage and beauty and I’m hopeful we can find ways to make them accessible to anyone who wishes to visit. I realize that goal requires parks that are both affordable and well-maintained.”