Three years ago, then-National Park Service Director Mary Bomar placed a freeze on most fees associated with visiting the national parks. Now, though, it appears that freeze might be thawing.
Recently, officials at Colorado National Monument announced a proposal to increase their entrance and camping fees beginning in 2011, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area also is studying fee increases.
Back when then-Director Bomar instituted the freeze, some wondered whether it was related to the country's economic conditions, or politics. A memo she sent out to the field at the time referenced the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act, not the economic climate.
"The Recreation Fee Program is under scrutiny and to avoid public controversy, fee increases charged through fee authorities other than the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act should be kept to a minimum," the memo read.
Part of that "scrutiny" that Director Bomar mentioned could have been legislation introduced to Congress late in 2007 that aimed to limit the fees the government could charge for recreation on public lands. That legislation, an effort to eliminate entrance fees charged on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands, has reappeared in Congress, where senators from Montana and Idaho are pushing to get a hearing on their bill by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Now, just as Director Bomar allowed regional Park Service directors to seek exemptions to the freeze on entrance fees and so-called "amenity" fees (which can apply to such things things as ranger programs, camping, and other visitor experiences in the parks), current Director Jon Jarvis is willing to consider requests for exemptions.
"The general moratorium on NPS FLREA fee increases is still in place but is reviewed/affirmed annually by the NPS leadership," said Jane Moore, the Park Service's fee program manager. "A decision was made this year to give NPS regional directors the authority to allow parks with compelling reasons to do outreach/engage the public related to possible 'future' fee changes."
Rationales for increasing fees could range from not wanting to undercut commercial entities outside parks to a need for revenues to fund projects within the parks, according to Ms. Moore.
"Some parks have not increased rates for a very long time, some parks have camping and other amenity rates so low that they unfairly compete with nearby private entities, sometimes a new visitor activity is offered like opening a lighthouse and the park would like to charge a fee to provide special guided tours," she said. "Sometimes a park wants to join the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) and the level of the fee will not cover the contractor costs as well as provide needed fee revenue for other
At Colorado National Monument, Superintendent Joan Anzelmo said fees at her park haven't budged in years; entrance fees haven't gone up in five years, she said, and camping fees haven't changed in more than 15. Under the proposal, it would cost $10 per car and $5 per hiker/cyclist to enter the redrock monument that stands in western Colorado. Current fees are $7 and $4, respectively. While no decision has been made on the proposed increases, Superintendent Anzelmo points out that surrounding communities have been "generally supportive" of the proposal.
Back in Washington, Ms. Moore noted that, "The few proposed fee increases are only the 'exceptions' and must go through a rigorous public participation process to ensure that the public/key constituents are supportive. If favorable public response occurs, the park and the region must still get approval from the director of the NPS to proceed with implementing the fee change."
At the same time, Ms. Moore explained that while many parks were getting ready to revamp their fee structures three years ago under fee schedule revisions approved by the Washington office, their efforts were placed in limbo when Director Bomar issued the freeze.
"There are a number of parks whose rates are very low, which also inflates their collection cost ratio and hampers their ability to generate additional fee funds for projects," she said.
How gateway communities to parks might respond to efforts to increase fees remains to be seen. Back in 2007 there was push-back from communities around Yosemite, Crater Lakes, and Olympic national parks, as well as at Lava Beds National Monument that effectively halted the increases. At the same time, little fanfare was made when fees were increased at Zion, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks.
It shouldn't be overlooked that while there seems to be some softening in increasing fees across the park system, the administration still has salted a number of entrance-fee-free dates into the calendar to lure folks out to the parks this year.
"We do recognize that the decision to limit fee increases is the right thing to do with the way the economy is going," said Ms. Moore. "The NPS leadership also decided that additional fee free days (National Park Week, and two additional fee free weekends this summer (June 4-5 and Aug 14-15) in addition to the already established fee free interagency days (Public Lands Day and Veterans Day) would be an important gesture to offer to the public and to attract new audiences."