The American public loves national parks, even as some destinations are becoming snarled in traffic and hikers pack places such as Zion’s Emerald Pools and River Walk and Arches’ Devil’s Garden.

After growing by 20 percent over the past decade, park visitation continues to surge to record numbers. Yet elected leaders have failed to increase spending for the 413-site system at a comparable pace, putting the National Park Service (NPS) in a bind. Does the agency continue to put off long-neglected maintenance or instead impose onerous entrance fees on those who visit?

Either option could undermine the National Park Service’s core twofold mission of preserving “unimpaired” the parks’ treasured natural and cultural resources and of making the parks accessible, according to Robert Keiter, a University of Utah law professor who directs the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment.

“It goes back to the beginning of the Park Service [in 1916] that these special places be available to everyone and affordable,” said Keiter, author of a 2013 book titled “To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea.”

(AP file photo) Hikers look up at a fast moving storm as it makes its way through Zion National Park outside of Springdale, Utah. Many of the country's most prominent national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion, continue to set new visitation records — underscoring the issue of a backlog of park maintenance.

Adequate funding has long eluded the National Park Service, but in recent years shortfalls have opened a widening backlog of deferred maintenance totaling $11.3 billion. The Interior Department is now seeking to tap visitors’ wallets to cover a small portion of these costs.

In late October, Interior unveiled a proposal to increase entry fees to $70 per vehicle at 17 popular parks, including Utah’s Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon, during their five busiest months. Utah’s Republican congressional delegation instantly panned the idea, which apparently was not vetted by officials at the affected parks ahead of time.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said he fears the increases would undermine rural economies that now depend on robust park visitation.

Utah’s four parks affected by the fee proposal accounted for 9.3 million visits last year. Statewide, park visitation supported $693 million in spending and 11,240 jobs in 2014, representing a huge piece of Utah’s $8 billion tourism economy.

Public weighs in

While most agree the parks need more cash, negative views of the fee plan have not improved much over the two-month comment period, which closed Dec. 22. The Park Service expects to finish compiling and analyzing the comments by the end of February, according to spokeswoman Kathy Kupper.

Politicians from across the political spectrum, meanwhile, have asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to re-evaluate or drop the plan.

“Congress never intended for entrance fees to become a priority revenue stream for national parks,” the House Natural Resources Committee wrote in comments prepared by ranking member Raul Grijalva. The Arizona Democrat knocked Interior for proposing a 13 percent budget cut to parks, while proposing a steep hike that covers only 2 percent of the 17 parks’ maintenance backlog.

“The administration should be working more closely with Congress to fund the National Park System as it was intended to be funded, not shifting the burden onto visitors,” Grijalva wrote.

(AP file photo) Hikers make their way to Sunset Point from Thors Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Keiter said he suspects the Park Service may be pushing the fee hike as a backdoor way to reduce pressure on its busiest parks.

“One question is whether there is an alternative goal here, particularly since these are popular parks, whether it’s actually designed to limit visitation, which would also be contrary to those initial principles,” he said.

Charging entrance fees dates back to at least 1908 at Mount Rainier in Washington. Eight years later when the National Park Service was established, eight parks charged a fee, according to Kupper. Zion started its fee in 1926, Bryce Canyon in 1939, Arches in 1966 and Canyonlands in 1987.

Before 1996, park fees generally went to the U.S. Treasury, but parks began retaining a portion with the “fee demo” program.

While fees are hardly new, several environmental groups, park “friends” associations and elected officials fear raising them would push parks out of reach for those on limited incomes.

(File photo courtesy of Neal Herbert) Canyonlands National Park.

A boost as dramatic as the one proposed would “threaten to put many Americans to the choice of beauty or bread and to distance them from the places in which so many experience the natural wonder of our great and unique nation,” a consortium of attorneys general wrote to acting NPS director Michael Reynolds.

“We cannot let the most popular and awe-inspiring national parks become places only for the wealthy,” the attorneys general wrote. “As Americans, we are all public landowners. All Americans should have access to these lands.”

Pay to play?

The 11 attorneys general hail from Western and East Coast states, including Arizona, California and Washington, which host parks affected by the proposed fee hike. Utah’s Sean Reyes was not among the signatories.

One unaddressed potential consequence of the proposal would be parkgoers’ increased use of the annual $80 pass that gets families into all 100 parks that charge entry fees. Eighty percent of money raised by these “interagency” passes is kept by the parks that collect it, so the plan could shift revenue to parks that sell large numbers of those passes and away from those that do not sell as many, critics say.

The 17 parks affected by the fee accounted for sales of nearly 419,000 of the “interagency” passes, or 72 percent of the total, in fiscal year 2017, according to NPS. Grand Canyon and Zion were by far the biggest sellers, with 62,854 and 60,842, respectively, suggesting they could be the bigger winners under the fee plan.

Boosting fees is supposed to raise gate revenue by 43 percent, or $68 million, according to the Park Service. But in their letter, the state attorneys general said they were disturbed that Interior failed to provide an economic analysis to support that increased revenue claim or even a coherent objective for the fee.

(AP file photo) Visitors gather at an outlook on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. Democratic senators are harshly criticizing a National Park Service plan to impose steep increases in entrance fees at 17 of its most popular parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion.

“Two of the Service’s own surveys have found that cost — including travel, lodging and entrance fees — is a major reason for the underrepresentation of minority communities among park visitors,” they wrote, “but the impact of a doubling or tripling of entrance fees on those communities is not addressed in the proposal.”

They urged Interior to scrap the fee in favor of seeking adequate funding from Congress, highlighting the National Parks Legacy Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Boasting a bipartisan cast of co-sponsors — although none from Utah — the bill would tap federal mineral royalties to pay into a “restoration” fund set up to address maintenance needs.

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart has spoken favorably of the idea, which may appear in a House bill.

“There are all kinds of strong competing demands for federal dollars and the Park Service has a difficult time getting its voice heard, especially since it’s a small part of the overall budget picture [or 0.15 percent],” Keiter said. “The public tends to take parks for granted and these maintenance issues, especially those that are not evident to the public, fly below the radar screen.”

Congressional delegations tend to advocate for their states’ parks and not for the entire system, he said.

Still, there is plenty of precedent for imposing special taxes to support federal investments in land preservation and recreation, such as a sales tax on hunting and fishing gear going to support wildlife refuges or taxes on gasoline to cover roads. Keiter wonders if it’s time to tax outdoor recreation gear and clothing and direct the cash to parks where the merchandise is put to use.