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Fee Creep In the Parks


    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 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.


The parks belong to the US people. They are mine - I should not need to pay anything more to visit what is mine. User fees only real purpose is to create a barrier to keep out the non rich. It is a means to create more country clubs and golf courses for the rich. Either way so called user fees are obscene and should be repugnant to all Americans.

Yes, on the institution I've lost most of my respect for...if you walk in the Natural History Museum and look at the rotunda, you see the name Kenneth Behring all over the place. Behring gave a lot of money to the Smithsonian. But, this guy, besides being vilified in Seattle for trying to move the Seahawks to California when he owned it, is known as one of the biggest game hunters in the world, a man so legendary, he is known to shoot at elephants from helicopters. Behring belongs to an exclusive sportsman's club that celebrates this kind of hunting. He is otherwise reviled. Yet, when he opens up his pocketbook for the Smithsonian, you see his name celebrated right up front for everyone to see. That's in part how they raise money so that the Smithsonian is free of user fees. I don't need to rehash what I've said though about this still being a symptom issue, but I did want to say that Sabattis is right.

The Smithsonians are something of a special case, since the Smithsonians owe their existence to a non-profit foundation that explicitly prohibited the charging of entrance fees. As such, the Smithsonian makes up for the lack of entrance fee with a lot of fundraising and corporate sponsorship. For example, around 73,000 people made "contributing member" donations of $70 each to the Smithsonian. Somewhere on the other of $170 million is raised from private sources each year by the Smithsonian, and as noted above, this often means corporate sponsorships of programs and exhibits. The Smithsonian also has an entity called "Smithsonian Business Ventures" that seeks ways to commercialize the Smithsonian through concessions, theatres, gifts, sponsored tours, etc. - which contribute another $17 million or so to the bottom line. By contrast, the largest non-profit association supporting the Parks, Eastern National, which operates bookstores at most East Coast NPS sites, contributes only around $1-2 million per year to the National Park service based on information I could find online.

Two people can sign their name to the new $80 pass and not have to be related to one another (unlike the Park Pass or Golden Eagle). So if you have a good friend who visits parks often, go in on the deal together, and share the pass. $40/each ain't a bad deal! Or, head over to a National Park and buy your $50 pass before Dec. 31st, thus putting off the price increase for a year.

Hey Jim, Did you know that Edward Abbey was also anarchist and a damn good one at that. More power to you Jim! Skoal, Snowbird

Hey Rex, don't insult me by calling me a liberal. I'm far worse than that; I'm an anarchist. Cheers, Jim

Hey Jim...that sure was a lot of liberal jibberish!

Tastes great or less filling? And, that's when anyone bothers to give us a choice at all. I think the "Land of the Free" means freedom to make superficial choices. If you think that's a drastic assessment, perhaps it is, (I think it's very close to the truth, especially if you see what's done to protesters in this day and age as well as ages past), but the choice between user fees and corporate sponsored trails is a sad choice that we probably have little control over. It's like a runaway train; wait that's the runaway Yellowstone Park Line. We don't have user fees in DC, though every park is run by the National Park Service here, even the most insignificant piece of land with grass on it and a statue of some dead war hero. On the other hand, I've been told that if I had a sign that said, "Enjoy Coca Cola" on one of those many lawns, this one happening to be Lafayette Park in front of the White House, no one would bother me - promoting private interest is okay in some parks. Yet, if I have a sign that says, "Stop War," an attitude that expresses what we're told makes this country free, I get chased around in circles around the statue of Andrew Jackson in the same park (you think I'm kidding? That's what happened to me, though that time it was the Secret Service and not the Park Police). I don't think the issue is fees. There are lots of issues that fees suggest, though. I think one that's coming out here is that there's no real control over what happens. It just does. That's what happens in a police state. And, why do I say something so outrageous? Not because I get chased around in circles around the pigeon shit all over Andrew Jackson's likeness, but rather because the issue of user fees shows us once again that the government basically sees management of parks and lands as a security issue. Its solutions suggest behavior modification. We say these are public lands; in truth we don't own them. So, for that, our trails might as well say, "Welcome to the penitentiary trail system, paid for by campaign contributions from Coleman Camping Gear." I guess that's why the snowmobile lobby exploits its cause so effectively. They exploit what in fact is wrong with the way the parks are managed, the ways that show themselves through the less than transparent processes that give us a "pass" to see "America the Beautiful." Who are they to restrict access, the lobby argues? Supposedly, their power rests on us, but it's a lot more complicated than that. It really rests on the Colemans who pretend to feud with "public" ownership (when really perhaps it just tells us which private interests have been cut out of the action - just as France being cut out of the Iraq action they once had so lucratively). And, they exploit it, these interests, for their own pernicious reasons, but they can because the reason for exploitation is there. I don't know what to do about user fees; I don't care. As I said elsewhere, I think the poor in the parks are the ones who work there and make money to live there, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for other middle class people like myself until we deal with other class issues. I do care about the larger issues in which user fees manifest themselves. I think we should turn our attention to them, or we are only going to keep futiley going after symptoms that have no effect on the disease itself. Jim

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