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Elizabeth Warren's Plan For Public Lands Would Make National Parks Free

Flickr Creative Commons Marc Nozell

No new oil and gas leases. No more shrinking monuments. Free entrance to national parks.

That’s what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would do if she becomes president, according to a new plan for public lands she is touting in Salt Lake City and Aurora, Colorado this week.

“The Trump administration is busy selling off our public lands to the oil, gas and coal industries for pennies on the dollar,” Warren wrote in her plan. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Warren is the one of the first Democratic candidates to roll out a public lands plan. The issue gained national prominence after the Trump administration drastically reduced the sizes of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in 2017.

That decision is currently under litigation. Warren’s plan would restore protections for those national monuments.

It would also eliminate entrance fees for national parks which would make it easier for low-income families to enjoy iconic places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, according to Warren’s plan.

But Jon Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration, said the issue is more complicated.

“It’s not as simple as changing the fee structure,” he said.

Low income families are often deterred by other, more expensive aspects of a trip to a national park, including gasoline costs and lodging. Entrance fees range from $10 to $35 per vehicle, according to the National Park Service.

“It’s cheaper than going to the movies, to be blunt about it,” Jarvis said. “It’s always been artificially depressed — to keep the fees down — to make sure it was not a deterrent.”

The entrance fees help pay for essential services and maintenance backlogs at national parks, Jarvis said. In 2016, the National Park Service raked in nearly $200 million in visitor entrance fees. Those fees are a reliable source of revenue — especially when lawmakers fail to pass a budget and the government shuts down.

If Warren were to eliminate them as president, Jarvis said, Congress would need to replace the funds somehow.

“While the president may propose such things, it’s Congress that appropriates,” he said. “So there would have to be a commitment on the part of Congress to replace those funds with federal appropriations.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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