When it comes to public lands in the United States, most citizens agree that they should exist. However, there is less agreement on how they should be funded.
Last fall, the National Park Service was faced with a proposal to dramatically increase fees at 17 of its most popular destinations. The proposed increase was suggested to address the $11 billion backlog of maintenance requests at national park sites across the country.
In late 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior received more than 100,000 public comments on the proposal.
The feedback was mostly negative.
“There was some controversy about a potential fee increase going all the way up to $70 for seven days. That was put on the back burner because I think they just got so much blowback because people were protesting” said Terry Knouf, an information specialist for the Moab Information Center located just outside of Arches National Park.
So instead, the DOI opted to implement a minimal fee increase at the 117 national park sites that do charge entrance fees.
“So the fee increases that we’re looking at, it turns out, for Arches National Park is in July and it’s going from $25 for seven days to $30 for seven days," Knouf said.
The fee changes recently took effect and so far, Knouf says there has been no visible change in visitation.
“But we also really believe that increased fees are just one way to help the deferred maintenance problem, but it can’t solve the problem alone,” said Yaron Miller, an officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington D.C. “Of the $11.6 billion backlog about$270 million is in sites in Utah."
Compare this to the projected $60 million that will be brought in by the minimal fee increase at all 117 sites across the U.S. Utah will see only a fraction of these additional funds, which suggests that maintenance repairs, including roads and trails, will remain unaddressed.
“At Zion National Park, the very popular Emerald Pools Trails needs about $647,000 in repairs," Miller said. "If you go over to Canyonlands, the roads to the popular Islands in the Sky and Needles landscapes need about $24 million in repairs.”
And the list goes on. Entrance fees alone will not fix the problem, but they do have the potential to affect the types of users we see in recreation areas. A recent study by researchers at Utah State University looked at the effect of entrance fees on visitors in multiple recreation sites located along the Wasatch Front.
“So we wanted to see if the $3 entrance fee to get into Millcreek Canyon was causing any sort of displacement of lower income people, so we compared household incomes and what we found is that there was probably about a 20-25 percent reduction of people who make $25,000 or less in Millcreek Canyon,” said Chase Lamborn, a research assistant in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.
Notably, researchers did not find that race, education or gender influenced visitor use. Instead, researchers found that income and willingness to pay influenced where citizens chose to recreate. Even when only a $3 entrance fee was involved, Lamborn found results suggesting that individuals were traveling three times farther to avoid paying for fee-required areas.
Lamborn likens this to his own experiences in southern Utah.
“I had a flashback of when I was in college and we would drive down to Moab and right outside of town there’s pretty cheap campsites and I remember at night with our headlights on and not just us but a bunch of other people were driving past these available campsites and driving way out into the desert looking for free campsites,” Lamborn said.
These findings suggest that the recent fee increase could deter low-income households, while also displacing others. This concern is echoed by much of the public comments received in late 2017, from individuals who feel that public lands should be made accessible and affordable for all.
To date, 28 groups in Utah, including the Cache Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Tourism Industry Association, have added their names to the growing list of agencies calling on the federal government to address the backlog. Doing so would aid many gateway communities across Utah.
“Tourism for many gateway communities is the lifeblood of many of their economies," Miller said. "In fact, last year over 15 million visitors to national park sites in Utah spent an estimated $1.1 billion in local communities.”
As visitation to parks and recreational areas increases, Miller says that increased federal funding needs to be considered.
“These are federal lands and it’s the responsibility of Congress and the federal government to properly take care of them,” he said.
The National Park Restoration Act is just one solution being considered by Congress to invest in our nation’s parks. Additional sources of funding in the form of private and non-profit partnerships also help to ensure our parks for generations to come.
Information on ongoing and completed projects at National Park Sites can be found here.
Songs include: I need a dollar by Aloe Blacc and Money by Pink Floyd
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.