Loving Our Lands: Park Budgets Stay The Same, While Visitors Increase

Jun 19, 2018

Timpanogos Cave is one of Utah's National Park sites experiencing increased visitation.
Credit www.nps.gov / National Park Service

Total National Park site visitation saw a six percent increase from 2015 to 2016. Along with increased visitation, parks are facing rising costs of deferred maintenance projects, leading to financial resources being thinly stretched. 

Timpanogos Cave National Monument, located to the east of Highland, Utah, is one example of how the issue is affecting our state.

“There are several main categories of funding streams, and the first one of course is our annual appropriation from congress. We get what’s called operations of National Parks Service funds, which tend to be more or less the same year after year. Those are intended to pay our base operating costs,” said Jim Ireland, the superintendent of Timpanogos Cave National Monument.

Funding for Timpanogos Cave has stayed fairly consistent for the past few years he said, but that doesn’t mean costs have.

“We haven’t seen dramatic cuts in the local budget, at least not at this point.” Ireland said. “What we see more is costs going up. Whether its salary costs, whether its fuel for our vehicles, whether it’s our utility bills, to put electricity for the lights in the cave, costs escalate, costs go up, but our budget stays relatively flat.”

Supporting the increased demand for recreation at the monument is Ireland’s biggest sustainability concern. Traditionally Timpanogos was a summer-only park because deep snow fall naturally closed the canyon. But with warmer spring and fall weather, the season could be longer.

“For decades we’ve had staff from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Ireland said. “But I could use staff here, that same level of staffing, from March until November now. And frankly at the budget level I have, I can’t hire the same kind of staff I have now in the summer for that period of time.”

Since 2013, the overall monument visitation has fluctuated each year between about 91,000 people to over 100,000 people. However, the number of people visiting in the colder months has dramatically increased. In 2013, the park had 630 recreation visitors at the monument from January to April. This year 1,402 recreation visitors came during that same time period.

“We’re pretty maxed out,” Ireland said. “So our challenge is not to attract more people. Our challenge is to manage the people we have coming and still give them the best experience and keep the cave protected.”

This increase in visitation is happening at Utah’s other national park sites as well. Zion is Utah’s most visited national park, and was the fifth most visited national park in the country in 2016. Since 2013, its overall visitation has grown from 2.8 million people to 4.5 million - an increase of 62 percent.

Zion is also following the trend of more off-season visitors. In 2013, over 640,000 recreation visitors came to the park from January to April. This year, the number was over a million.

To help Timpanogos Cave meet the increased visitation demand, Ireland said he is looking at staffing-model alternatives.

“We either keep our season short and turn people away, or we try to find some other way to do it,” Ireland said. “We’re looking at volunteers as a possibility and that could help with some of that. Ultimately we need to come up with a different model for how we staff. That’s our challenge. It’s not so much limited funds. It’s trying to meet the needs with the funds we have.”

Much like an individual has to prioritize expenses in their household budget, national parks and monuments have to do the same, Ireland said.

“We manage every year in the budget we are given,” Ireland said. “We prioritize and we put our top priorities on safety and resource protection and providing visitor enjoyment.”  

But even with prioritization, there is an increasing list nationally of park maintenance needs that aren’t being met.

“This park has been a park for 95 years,” Ireland said. “Some of our facilities go back almost that long, and it takes money to keep the trail attached to the mountain or keep the roofs on the building fixed and that sort of thing.”

The national deferred maintenance backlog totaled $11.6 billion in September of 2017. In February of this year, President Donald Trump proposed a $2.7 billion 2019 budget for the National Parks Service. This was accompanied by legislation to create a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund and $805 million in the Department of the Interior’s budget to help with the backlog.

“Every park has certain maintenance needs that have been put off year after year,” Ireland said. “We’d like to pay for those, and we’re no exception.”

Timpanogos Cave National Monument currently does not charge an entrance fee for use of things like park trails and picnic areas, and moving forward Ireland said it is unlikely to happen. The park is surrounded by the Unitah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and a canyon use fee is already charged for American Fork Canyon where the park is located.

However, there is a fee to take tours of the cave, and those fees are a different story.

“We haven’t raised them very much over the last few years, so honestly we might be looking at raising them another dollar or two a ticket to try to drive some extra revenue,” Ireland said. “But we always try to balance that the park could use the operating revenue, but at the same time we want to make it a reasonable fee for people to enjoy the park.”

Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here

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