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Looking For Fixes: National Park Fans Worry Fees Will Climb But $12B To-Do List Won't Go Down

Brooke and Randy Levin are money people. They know about investments and cash flow. He handles finances at a physical therapy company in Atlanta. She does real estate deals. They know about the parks’ money problems. And at the Arches National Park visitors center, they share some ideas, like ranger-guided tours.

“I think after we got lost a few times, we probably would have paid you know 20 bucks a person or something for that,” says Brooke.

Credit Judy Fahys/KUER
Trail improvements are among the National Park Service's long backlog list. This trail to a Delicate Arch overlook is just one example of nearly $25 million in repairs needed at Arches National Park near Moab.

And another.

I would have given a tip to the park ranger when I came in and had no idea what I was doing,” she adds. “But I didn't see a tip jar. I'm not saying that's going to cover everything. But a few bucks here, a few bucks there, and all of a sudden you’ve got a few mill.”

America’s national parks are rickety. Our to-do list for repairs and upgrades is long, and the Trump administration has a plan to help.

The money’s needed because of the backlog. It’s like the repair to-do list at home: a leaky toilet, rotting railing on the deck, new carpet for the living room.

But here’s the thing: The to-do list at national parks is almost $12 billion – for rebuilding worn out campgrounds and bathrooms, for clearing rubble from hiking trails and replacing guardrails at viewpoints. Work’s needed at all 411 places managed by the National Park Service.

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
Arches National Park has a backlog of maintenance and repair projects of nearly $25 million. Visitors KUER spoke with said they support innovative ways to raise funds for the work, but they're not convinced the National Park Service's targeted fee proposal is the answer.

The Trump administration expects to raise $70 million with the fees. But, with a $12 billion backlog, people worry that $70 million dollars won’t even make a dent.

Credit Judy Fahys/KUER
The maintenance backlog

“We are actually quite concerned from the information we've been able to gather so far,” says Vicki Varela, who leads Utah’s tourism office.

“The good news is that it recognizes a very big problem. The bad news is that it doesn't seem to address the infrastructure needs. And there may be many other unintended consequences.”

Now, here’s a math word problem: Take Utah’s Mighty Five national parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion. If you visit them all now, the total is $120 in entrance fees. And, of that 120 bucks, each park keeps 80 percent of the fee for its own projects.

Under the new entrance fees? The same trip would cost you $290. Capitol Reef isn't part of the new fee plan, but the four other Utah parks would see their shares more than double.

Lots of money, right?

The National Park Service is taking public comments on its targeted fee program through Dec. 22. Link below.

Not really. What’s called the America the Beautiful pass is the reason why. It covers entry fees for all the national parks and all other federal lands. Anywhere in America, All year. For seniors, it never expires. And it costs $80.

So, who would pay $70 to explore Arches for a week when 10 bucks more gets them into all the parks year-round?

The math’s done, so we can get back to Arches for some fresh air and the cry of a red-tail hawk.

Really, that’s a plush toy tucked inside Easton Hoyt’s jacket. Easton’s from Colorado and racking up Junior Ranger stamps. He’s got eight so far this year thanks to an America the Beautiful pass.

“Wow,” says Easton’s mom, Kim, surprised at the fee proposal. “To help support the parks I guess I'd be OK with paying a little bit more. I wouldn't pay $70 a visit, though.”

Nobody here seems to think the $70 pass makes sense. Almost everybody buys an all-parks pass.

This is one of the unintended consequence Varela’s worried about. National parks pumped $1.6 billion into the state’s economy last year, so getting this right is a big deal.

The annual passes – the fee goes mainly to the park where it was purchased,” she explains. “And, so there's a whole cascading series of problems that smaller parks and second-visited parks end up getting no revenues out of this.”

If you buy an American the Beautiful pass by phone or online, none of the money goes to a particular park. 

It's a curious proposal... because it really doesn't address the problem of the maintenance backlog across the national park system. – Kurt Repanshek

And, if you start your Mighty Five tour at Zion, only Zion gets money. Not the other Utah parks.

“It's a curious proposal,” says Kurt Repanshek, who publishes an online newsletter called, National Parks Traveler. And the reason I say that is because it really doesn't address the problem of the maintenance backlog across the national park system.”

He wonders about parks that aren’t included in the new fee system. Nearly 400 of them would share about $14 million a year under the Trump administration plan. He also wonders why other revenue sources aren’t on the table, like raising grazing fees. Bringing them up by the cost of living – it would mean $93 million more a year.

But that’s not on Trump administration’s agenda.

What is? Cutting the park budgets. The Trump administration wants to raise entry fees while cutting the park budget by $400 million dollars and trimming 1,250 staff.

“That's another irony,” says Repanshek. “It just doesn’t pencil out. The math doesn’t make sense.”

He has little faith that Congress will step in. It was Congress, after all, that let the backlog balloon to begin with.

“If you really love the national parks and you want to see the national parks and the Park Service thrive,” he says, “I think we have to put some hard questions to our Congress and senators and find out why have they been absent in stewarding and advocating for the national park system.”

Photography buff Sandra Flattery from Idaho is finally visiting Arches. She’s thrilled. She’s always wanted to see Utah’s national parks. She’s snapping pictures of a young couple posing in front of a grand, redrock arch.

“It just blows my mind,” she says, “the amazing, amazing-ness of what Nature can do. Wow.”

Flattery’s like other park visitors who think Nature’s already done her part. She wants the parks to be just as awesome for her grandkids. Now it’s up to Americans and their leaders to accomplish a remarkable feat. They need to solve this money problem.

The National Park Service is taking public comments on the targeted fee increase through Dec. 22. 

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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