Worries that it might get more expensive to climb Mount McKinley in Denali National Park or Mount Rainier in its namesake park have prompted three climbing groups to ask National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to stave off any increases.
While no formal proposals have been issued by either park, there has been talk about boosting the McKinley/Foraker fee to $500 and the Rainier fee to about $50.
Some might think such increases for a sport in which a single cam can cost $120 and a rope upwards of $300 and in which a guided McKinley expedition can cost thousands of dollars are not entirely unreasonable, especially in light of the costs to the Park Service for maintaining climbing programs. But in writing Director Jarvis to "protest these unnecessary and unfair mountaineering fee increases," The Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and American Mountain Guides Association maintain climbers can ill-afford an increase in fees.
"In these tough economic times, these large fee increases will price Americans out of their own parks," maintain the groups.
Talk of a permit increase of some amount at the two parks has surfaced due to the growing costs of maintaining properly trained, educated, and equipped teams of climbing rangers in those parks. These programs are not cheap, and the existing fees don't come close to covering their costs, according to Park Service personnel.
At Denali, the fee goes toward "the cost of the mountaineering program that provides support/assistance to the 1,200 climbers that attempt Denali annually," park spokeswoman Kris Fister said. "The current fee covers about 15 percent of the cost of the program, so the rest comes from the park's annual base budget. The fee offsets the cost of the mandatory 60 day pre-registration program, preventative search and rescue education, training for the mountaineering rangers, staffing of acclimatized rescue personnel
(including volunteers) at three camps on the mountain, and the Clean Mountain Can program (the solid human waste removal program required above 14,000 feet)."
In the park, where climbers make up less than half of 1 percent of the park's annual visitation, about 7 percent of the park's annual base budget goes to support them, she added.
At Mount Rainier National Park, Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said Friday that the revenues from the $30 permit fees covers roughly 75-80 percent of his park's $428,000 climbing program. Almost one-third of the program's cost, $150,000, comes out of the park's base budget, he said.
Denali officials have been discussing the costs of their mountaineering program and the fee schedule for the past four years with representatives from the American Alpine Club and other interested parties, but no solution has materialized yet.
"The figure $500 has been floated, but we need to review the program and look at its costs over the winter so that we can put forth the most accurate figure that will ensure the integrity of the mountaineering program and not degrade other essential park programs," said Ms. Fister. "So the final figure hasn't been set yet. As this isn't a new fee, we don't have to have a formal public comment period. We have been receiving comments from the public since we first started looking at an increase."
In their letter to Director Jarvis, the climbing organizations requested a breakdown of what climbing services cost the Park Service. Specifically, they requested:
* Any costs, expenses, and budgeting documentation, correspondence or related information (including years) concerning the mountaineering programs (or other park operations affecting climbing management) at Denali and Rainier, specifically:
* Search and rescue and any emergency medical services
* Visitor use statistics (numbers, categories and attributes of park users)
* General park operations and law enforcement
* Visitor and resource protection
* Any National Park Service records or correspondence related to the establishment and maintenance of the current mountaineering fee at Denali and Rainier national parks.
"Denali’s plan to raise mountaineering fees from $200 to $500 reflects an unprecedented increase, is not based on need, and unfairly targets climbers. Moreover, simply raising fees 150 percent without public input during these tough economic times is shocking and is likely to result in lower numbers of Americans able to afford the unique mountaineering experiences found at Denali," the groups wrote. "This extraordinary mountaineering fee increase is a national issue and we believe that Denali managers may simply be unfairly shifting more of the burden of the park’s budget onto climbers. We’re also skeptical that the current fee level for mountaineering is warranted.
"Rainier’s fee increase appears similarly unjustified. We fear that these added costs will make the unique mountaineering opportunities available at Denali and Rainier too expensive for many Americans."
The letter was copied to the following:
* The Honorable Patty Murray, US Senate
* The Honorable Maria Cantwell, US Senate
* The Honorable Lisa Murkowski, US Senate
* The Honorable Mark Begich, US Senate
* The Honorable Don Young, US House of Representatives
* The Honorable Dave Reichert, US House of Representatives
* US Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee
* US Senate National Parks Subcommittee
* US House of Representatives Interior Appropriations Subcommittee
* US House of Representatives National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee
* Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, US Interior Department
* Garry Oye, Chief of Wilderness Stewardship & Recreation Management, National Park Service
* Rick Potts, Chief of Conservation & Outdoor Recreation Division, National Park Service
* Paul Anderson, Superintendent, Denali National Park
* Dave Uberuaga, Superintendent, Mount Rainier National Park
* Mike Gauthier, Liaison to the National Park Service, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, US Interior Department
The climbing groups' letter, and its tone, caught Superintendent Uberuaga by surprise, as his staff had met with the park's climbing concessionaires and mentioned the possibility of a higher permit fee and that there would be public meetings to seek input on the proposal. The Access Fund also was apprised, he said.
Mount Rainier last raised its climbing permit fee in 2003, when it went from $25 to $30.
While the Park Service is preparing a formal response to the groups, Superintendent Uberuaga said he and Denali Superintendent Paul Anderson plan to meet with the executive directors from The Access Fund, the American Alpine Club, and the American Mountain Guides Association in mid-October to discuss permit fees.
The Mount Rainier superintendent was optimistic the tensions could be resolved. The three groups, he said, have been vital partners for Mount Rainier, Denali, and other parks with climbing resources as they help out with education, training, and lobbying in Washington, D.C., for the parks.
"We consider them really critical partners in our relationship," Superintendent Uberuaga said. "It’ll all work out in the end, I’m confident of that.”