Climbing at high elevations is a highly specialized sport, and the support network for those who aspire to summit Mount McKinley in Denali National Park is a million-dollar proposition. While park officials believe climbers should bear more of that cost, the climbing community is pushing back.
Last week representatives from national climbing organizations planned to meet with top Interior and Park Service officials to discuss a proposal to boost, beginning in 2012, the per-climber fee at Denali from $200 to possibly as much as $500 for those eying the summit of either McKinley or Mount Foraker.
“We agree that climbers ought to pay an appropriate fee," says Jason Keith, the policy director for the Access Fund, an organization that works to see access on federal lands doesn't get cut off to climbers. "What that is, is clearly up for debate because we’ve got a lot of disagreement with how Denali is characterizing the mountaineering program, first of all, and then secondly how they feel they ought to fund that program."
Denali's mountaineering program has evolved substantially since 1992, when 13 climbers died on McKinley, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous mountains in the world to summit due to the weather spun off from the Gulf of Alaska. In the aftermath, officials adopted a three-part strategy to heighten the safety of climbers: (1) a mandatory 60-day pre-registration; (2) enhanced preventative search and rescue education (PSAR), and; (3) a special-use fee to partially recover the costs of the program.
That third leg, the special-use fee, in 1995 was set at $150 per climber for those heading up either 20,320-foot McKinley or 17,400-foot Foraker. Part of that revenue was used to establish the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Basecamp, the 14,200-foot Ranger Camp, and the 17,000-foot High Camp for climbing rangers so they could be properly acclimated to the elevation and ready to respond to rescues or other assistance.
The revenues also enabled the park to create a "preventative search and rescue" -- PSAR -- program to educate climbers to the risks and hazards they might encounter on the mountains. The results of that approach were recognized in 2008, when a "study published in 2008 by the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology concluded that the Denali PSAR program had reduced the fatality rate by 53%."
Helicopters to reach those high elevations also are necessary for evacuations and to restock the climbing rangers' basecamps. And then there are the costs of training the rangers and removing human waste from the mountains.
Those programs are expensive, according to park officials, and the current fee structure for climbers does not come close to covering the bills.
That initial $150 per climber fee generated enough dollars to cover about 30 percent of the park's climbing program, according to Denali officials. While the fee increased to $200 per climber in 2005, the park has been spending way more than the revenues generated by the climbers. Currently those climbing fees cover just 17 percent of the costs of maintaining the mountaineering program, which for fiscal 2011 is estimated to run $1.1 million, according to Denali officials.
The park has received a total of $440,000 in base increases to fund the high altitude helicopter program and expects to collect $200,000 from the cost recovery mountaineering special use fee. This leaves $520,000 in direct operating costs that must be funded from either other park program funds, an increase in the user fee, or a combination of both.
Denali officials have been exploring three avenues to offset the imbalance:
* Require all climbers in Denali National Park and Preserve, not just those attempting McKinley and Foraker, to pay a climbing fee;
* Increase the Mountain Use Fee to cover more or all of the total cost of the program;
* Or implement an annual Consumer Price Index adjustment to the Mountain Use Fee.
At the Access Fund, Mr. Keith said park officials should look to other park visitors to help meet the difference, and they also should reevaluate how necessary all the elements of the current mountaineering program are.
"We’re more focused on the programmatic side, not on revenue generation, because you can fix the money problem and still have a sick program," he said from his Moab, Utah, office. "Or a bloated program, or an inappropriately designed program. So we want to make sure the program is what’s appropriate and find a way to fund it. We did propose a revenue solution through entrance fees, and we do think that’s appropriate, a real modest increase would address all their concerns."
In their comments (attached) to Denali officials, the Access Fund, the American Alpine Club, and the American Mountain Guides Association said higher park entrance fees for all visitors -- perhaps boosting the vehicle rate from $20 to $25, or the pedestrian fee from $10 to $12 -- wouldn't be unreasonable. After all, they noted, the park attracts "non-climbing visitors...who nonetheless appreciate Denali and its rich mountaineering history. The importance that Denali has for all park visitors is underscored by the mountaineering purpose that Congress mandated twice through legislation governing Denali National Park."
Spreading the cost of the park's mountaineering program to all park visitors, the groups continued, "is equitable given that most Denali National Park visitors greatly value Denali and are at least in part attracted to the park for its mountain and mountaineering tradition."
The groups also suggested that the park:
* Change the way it staffs the climbing program with "multiple high-paid GS-rated NPS staff for mountain patrols..." and seek a more diverse -- ie., less expensive -- staffing approach;
* Rely on more volunteers for the mountain patrols;
* "Reduce costs related to supplying the high-altitude camps and other efforts that support SAR (search and rescue) readiness. The park should reconsider the appropriate level of readiness required to be maintained by the NPS high on the mountain.
The park also needs to examine how it spends the revenues generated by climbers, said Mr. Keith.
"We feel that they are, first of all, unfairly charging the climbing program for costs that should be attributed to other users. ... That helicopter is used for more than just the mountaineering program. The cost of the Talkeetna Ranger Station, climbers have to pay the carpet cleaning fee for that, as an example," he said.
For their part, Denali officials note that they have reduced costs associated with the mountaineering program.
"In FY-10 the park was able to defray significant costs of the high-altitude helicopter contract component of the program by charging $112,000 to other programs such as the National SAR program. In addition, the park saved $85,000 by utilizing military aircraft to insert and extract the mountain camps," they note.
Since 2006, when they had a series of discussions with the climbing groups over the climbing fees, Denali officials note that "the park committed to doing a complete review and analysis of the mountaineering program. Subsequently, every aspect of the program was evaluated for need and cost efficiency. Changes made as a result of this review reduced the cost of the program in FY 10 by approximately $250,000."
Denali officials declined to discuss every point raised by the climbing groups in their comments regarding the proposed fee increase. Instead, they issued the following statement to the Traveler:
No other park is required to provide a specialized program that costs so much and serves so few (less than ½ of 1 percent) of the park’s visitors. The average cost to the park for these 1000 visitors is $1000/person. The average cost for all other park visitors is about $37/person.
There are a number of misconceptions on what costs are being charged to the mountaineering program. When calculating the cost of the mountaineering program, the NPS included only those costs that can be directly attributable to the program. Only the portions of permanent salaries, equipment costs, and Talkeetna Ranger Station expenses that directly support the mountain operation are included in the cost recovery program. The remainder of these costs are charged to other programs. The contract helicopter is base-funded, so its cost is not a part of the cost recovery
The NPS is currently analyzing all of the comments received during the public comment period. The NPS is incorporating the substantiative comments that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the mountaineering program and minimize costs to the NPS and to the climbers. As a result of conversations with the American Alpine Club, Access Fund, and guides during the past two years, the NPS has reduced the program costs by $325,000.
While members of the climbing community may support an increased entrance fee, members of the general public have not been supportive of paying additional money to provide funding for a program that they don’t participate in.
In the series of public meetings Denali officials held earlier this year to take public input on the climbing fees, one message from the park seemed to rise above all else, according to Mr. Keith.
"We were told point blank by Denali that none of this (mountaineering program) is discretionary," he said. "'We’re the experts, and we’re going to do this program. You need to help us figure out a way to pay for it.' That was the message loud and clear.
“We just said, 'Wait a minute. We’re not suggesting we ought to put anybody in danger, we’re not saying you should cut the helicopter contracts,'" Mr. Keith recalled. "'We’re saying that there ought to be an updated special use fee authority', and that’s what we’re going to be talking to the Park Service about. There ought to be a different way to design these extremely unique recreation programs that are really expensive.”