Americans love their national parks.
But what do they think about paying more to play in them?
Thousands of Americans have been weighing in on that question over the past two months. And it’s something listeners mentioned when we asked them for what they wanted to know about public lands on our community engagement platform, Ask KUER.
“I’m a retired English and journalism teacher from here in Blanding, San Juan High School,” said Janet Wilcox, one of the people who sent in a question.
Where Wilcox lives, there are two national parks just up the road – Arches and Canyonlands. Under a National Park Service plan, both will charge higher entry fees next year during the busy season to raise money sorely needed for maintenance and repairs.
This is something Wilcox thinks about, and it led to her question.
“Okay, here it is,” Wilcox began. “It says, ‘With our nation $20 trillion dollars in debt, and national parks under a two-year maintenance deferment, what other recourse does the Department of Interior have except raising money?’ ”
Put another way, Wilcox is asking KUER to find out what we can do to cover the cost of caring for our national parks and other public lands.
She’s no earthy, crunchy liberal. She was happy President Trump all but scrapped the Bears Ears National Monument a few weeks ago. The federal government’s bloated, she says. And it doesn’t have enough money to protect the public lands we already have.
“At some point,” Wilcox says, “you have to decide what you really can afford to take care of.”
She has no problem with the Interior Department’s plan to raise entrance fees at 17 parks for part of each year, during the busy season. The cost of getting into the two nearby parks, as well as Zion and Bryce Canyon, will be $70 - more than double what it is now.
New Yorker Mike Andriani has some opinions about this, too. At the Arches National Park Visitors Center, he tells how he’s demoralized about the mean political climate. So, he’s spending three months visiting parks and other public lands to clear his head and restore his heart.
He and Wilcox might be polar opposites in some ways, but they agree about the fees.
“If that's kind of used as a bullhorn,” he says, “to kind of rally people to rally people to fund these places and keep them conserved.”
Andriani nods with approval when he hears how the fee hike could raise around $70 million a year. That would repair a lot of trails, bathrooms and visitor centers—and he’s noticed how badly that’s needed.
“At Grand Canyon, Panorama Point, the Tonto plateau — I mean this is a beautiful, beautiful spot to get a really nice perspective of the Colorado River,” he says, “and it's a place where California condors frequent, and there's a safety rail there that doesn't look very sturdy. It’s a miracle that you haven’t heard of any really treacherous injury on those trails or with the mule trains that go down.”
But the national parks to-do list is almost $12 billion. It would take almost two centuries to erase that backlog with just the fee hike, and Andriani says we don’t have that kind of time.
“We’re at a crossroads,” he says. “We either conserve and take seriously this treasure that we have, that someone was smart enough to set aside, or we just discard it and we pay a heavy price.”
“The thing is, the budget for the National Park Service is small, and it's declining as a portion of the federal budget,” says Emily Douce, who tracks budgets for the National Parks Conservation Association, a public lands advocacy group.
“You know, it's really kind of a big puzzle,” she continues. “And all these pieces are important to finishing that puzzle. So, fees certainly can be a part of it. But we don't want to price people out of our national parks.”
And this brings us back to Janet’s question, because there are other ideas out there for fixing the backlog. What about tapping oil and gas drilling revenues? Or selling off excess public land? Or raising livestock-grazing fees by the cost of living?
Possible solutions like these have gotten no traction.
In fact, the backlog keeps growing.
“Unfortunately, Congress is on the hook here,” says Douse. “They have not provided the money necessary for national parks. It's not going to be one silver bullet to really address it, but all of these things should be considered thoroughly.”
Another option is bipartisan legislation backed by Douce’s group and 66 members of Congress. It’s called the National Park Service Legacy Act, and it would funnel proceeds from mining on public lands into clearing the maintenance backlog year after year.
Not one of Utah’s six members of Congress is a co-sponsor.
What KUER discovered in reporting this story is basically what Janet Wilcox said at the start, that a good solution might be “reinvesting” money from public lands in other public lands, like national parks.
“Good luck on your story,” says Wilcox as the conversation winds down. “I hope it really generates some new ways of thinking about what we could do, because it’s a national crisis, I think.”
Wilcox is one of more than 90,000 people who have commented on the Interior Department’s entrance-fee plan, and the deadline’s Friday, Dec. 22.
The Park Service isn’t saying how it will use all of those comments in its final decision.
A spokesperson said in an email that the fee hike is a “proposal” and that comments will be “processed and analyzed.”
And the final decision? It’ll be announced, the spokesperson says, in press releases and social media —seemingly dry ways to update Americans about places they care about so passionately.
— NationalParkService (@NatlParkService) November 21, 2017