Citing the rising cost of doing business and tighter budgets, Buffalo National River officials have increased the fees for camping along the national river.
The increases took effect Friday, November 15, but won't actually be collected until next spring since the park doesn't charge for camping during the winter months. The higher fees apply at drive-in sites, which include electric hookups, at Buffalo Point (fom $17 to $22 per night), the walk-in sites at Buffalo Point and Tyler Bend (from $12 to $16 per night), and at Kyles Landing, Ozark, and Steel Creek (from $10 to $12 per night). The fee for group sites remain the same: $3 per person/per night.
"This is the first fee increase at Buffalo National River in ten years, made necessary by rising operational costs," said park officials, who received little response when they proposed the increases back in December. Just 15 comments were received, with nine in support of the increases and six against them.
"Most visitors understand that it costs more to operate the campgrounds now than it did ten years ago and that our fees are reasonable," said Teri Gage, the national river's commercial services manager. "Several people who responded during the public comment period were supportive of an increase but felt the originally proposed rates were too high. We took that into consideration and reduced the amount of the increase. For example, the park had originally proposed to increase rates for the Buffalo Point drive-in sites from $17 to $25. We've scaled that back to $22."
The increased revenue, projected between $50,000 and $75,000, will enable the park to continue basic campground maintenance, provide some necessary repairs and improvements, and pay the utility bills, a park release said.
"But the fee increase will not solve all of the budget woes at Buffalo National River," the release continued. "Like many units of the National Park Service, Buffalo National River is struggling with budget cuts that have resulted in facility closures and reduced services throughout the park.
"The budget cuts are real and they're painful," said Superintendent Kevin Cheri. "We continue to streamline our operations and look for ways to save but administering a national park is very different from running a business in the private sector and what may seem like obvious ways to cut costs in the private sector just aren't possible for us.
"Pay rates for federal employees are established by Congress and there is no legal authority or mechanism for federal managers to adjust those rates. Personnel regulations prohibit federal managers from arbitrarily reducing the hours of a full-time employee. The decision to close facilities is a tough one to make and certainly not popular, but sometimes it's the only option we have."
One of those difficult decisions was to close the Erbie campground located in the upper district near Pruitt. "Erbie is popular in the spring and early summer, especially with locals. But its location – seven miles from the highway down a rough gravel road – makes it cost prohibitive to maintain, patrol, and collect fees," said Ms. Gage. The Erbie campground was closed in 2013 and will remain closed in 2014.
Other decisions aimed at reducing overhead costs include removing the Rush Campground and Carver Campground from the fee program. Both campgrounds have historically low occupancy rates and the fees collected did not offset the cost of collecting the fees.
Rush Campground will remain open to the public for primitive tent camping at no charge. The vault toilet will remain open with reduced custodial services, but there will be no potable water or trash services on site. Carver will remain open as a river access but there will be no bathroom, water, or trash services.
"We're doing our best to keep as many facilities open as possible," explained Superintendent Cheri. "But we have 24 vacant positions and the remaining staff is stretched mighty thin. To make this work, we need the cooperation of the public. We're hoping that the visitors who love the river will embrace the new pack it in/pack it out approach and be good stewards of the park."
Since the park does not collect fees from mid-November to mid-March, visitors won't actually be affected by the increase until March 14, 2014. Campers who are concerned about costs are encouraged to explore the National Park Pass program, which offers discounts for camping and entrance fees at national parks and other federal lands throughout the United States. Information about National Park Passes can be found on the internet at this site.