Last week I told you about the new, $80 America the Beautiful pass the federal government will be selling beginning New Year's Day. It will gain you access to national parks, U.S. Forest Service lands, the vast Bureau of Land Management empire, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges, and, phew, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation properties.
What I haven't been able to decipher just yet is, in response to this pass, whether we'll see some hike in daily, weekly or annual entrance fees to parks around the nation.
But would that really be surprising? I mean, this new pass effectively raises the ceiling for national park entrance fees, since the outgoing National Parks Pass cost $50 and the new ATB pass represents a whopping 60 percent increase.
The ATB pass also represents a 25 percent increase from the currently available $65 Golden Eagle Pass that gets you into all the same lands as the newly minted ATB pass.
(In fact, shrewd folks might want to go out the last week of the year to their nearest federal lands agency office and buy a Golden Eagle Pass for $65. That'd put off for at least a year spending that extra $15.)
Anyway, let me tell you about another case of fee creep in the national park system: If you want to reserve in advance a backcountry campsite in Grand Teton National Park, it will cost you $25 in 2007, up from, $15 this year.
So, if you wait until 2007 to buy an ATB pass, and then make an advance reservation for a backcountry trip to Grand Teton, the cost will be $105 before you set out down the trail. That's a 66.5 percent increase from current levels. In one year.
Now, Grand Teton routinely makes one-third of its backcountry sites available for advance reservation. The other two-thirds are held back for walk-up traffic, for which there is no reservation fee.
I'm told the higher fee for reserving a site stems from the paperwork one person must handle. (Ironically, that one person in Grand Teton currently is on furlough...as the park doesn't have enough money to cover her position.)
Apparently, those who typically seek advance reservations are not weekend warriors who simply want to head to one campsite, spend a night or two, and go home. No, apparently those who reserve in advance want to secure multiple campsites for an extended trip. I've done that a number of times in Yellowstone and Grand Teton when I've headed into the watery backcountry of Shoshone, Yellowstone and Jackson lakes. In those instances, you definitely want to know you have a site reserved.
And, truth be told, a $25 fee for reserving any number of sites isn't that terrible. But a 40 percent increase in one year?
And in these days of shrinking ranger forces, wouldn't you think park managers would want more people to reserve sites on-line through an automated system Grand Teton officials claim "simplifies and streamlines" the overall process rather than encouraging more and more people to descend on the visitor center staff with walk-in requests?
I'm afraid we're entering a phase of rampant fee creep at the national parks as individual parks struggle to make ends meet with inadequate funding from Washington. Why else would we see such large percentage increases in fees?
In case you were wondering, backcountry travel in Grand Teton actually was up this year over 2005 levels. During 2005 the park issued 4,156 backcountry permits, and this year the total jumped to 4,889. No word on how many of those involved advance reservations.