Senators oppose plan to hike national park entrance fees

Both of Washington state’s U.S. senators have signed a letter opposing a proposal to raise peak season entrance fees to $70 per private vehicle at 17 national parks, a move that would skyrocket Olympic National Park’s entrance fee by nearly three times.

The National Park Service proposal announced a week ago follows President Donald Trump’s requested $2.55 billion budget for the National Park Service for fiscal year 2018, down from the current $2.85 billion.

The park service says the increase would go to taking care of a backlog of some $11 billion in deferred maintenance projects.

Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace — a ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — and Patty Murray, D-Seattle, have joined 10 other senators in requesting that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke provide Congress with the analysis and justification used to establish the proposed park entrance fee increases.

“We are unable to see how doubling or tripling a park entrance fee is anything other than an effort to exclude many Americans from enjoying their national parks,” the senators wrote in their letter.

“This proposal seems directly contrary to your often-stated goal of improving public access to our public lands.”

At the same time, a measure co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer of the 6th Congressional District — which includes the North Olympic Peninsula — languishes in Congress, still unassigned to a committee.

The bill, the National Park Service Legacy Act introduced in May by two Democrats and two Republicans, would address the backlog by distributing revenue the government receives from oil and gas royalties back into a restoration fund to pay for such repairs as repaving roads and fixing trails.

“The American people shouldn’t be priced out of enjoying their national parks,” Kilmer said Friday.

“While there is a clear need to address the maintenance backlog, jacking up fees so substantially will hurt folks who want to visit these extraordinary gems and will be bad for local jobs and for our communities.

“Our bipartisan bill takes a much smarter approach — fixing the wear and tear and maintenance challenges without making it harder for folks to enjoy the assets that are so essential to our region.”

Under the proposed park service plan, fees would increase from $25 per vehicle to $70 per vehicle for Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks beginning May 1 and continuing through Sept. 30.

Public comment is now being accepted on the proposal through Nov. 23.

The public can comment online at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-parkfeehike or by mailing written comments to National Park Service, Recreation Fee Program, 1849 C St. NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, DC 20240.

The senators’ letter issued Thursday also was signed by Bernie Sanders, Tom Udall, Ron Wyden, Mazie Hirono, Martin Heinrich, Tim Kaine, Chris Van Hollen, Kamala D. Harris, Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy.

“The National Park Service has failed to provide any rationale for the proposed fee increase. The new fee levels appear arbitrary and unjustifiable,” the letter says.

“Why does the National Park Service believe charging $70 for a seven-day admission pass is a good value when an America the Beautiful annual pass valid nationwide costs $80?

“Likewise, prices for park-specific annual passes will also be significantly increased and will be priced only $5 less than the national annual pass, which makes no economic sense.”

The letter also tells Zinke that at the same time the fee hike was proposed, “you have reversed efforts to charge fair market value for commercial development of resources on public lands.

“For example, in August the Department repealed the Valuation Rule, allowing private companies to exploit valuation loopholes and ensuring that the American public is denied their fair share of the sale of publicly-owned resources.

“The administration should stop subsidizing oil, gas and coal companies for the exploitation of public resources and instead work to ensure that taxpayers get a fair value for the commercial use and development of public resources.”

In 2016, 331 million park visitors spent an estimated $18.4 billion in local gateway regions while visiting national parks across the country, the letter says.

These expenditures supported a total of 318,000 jobs and $34.9 billion in economic activity in the national economy.

Olympic National Park reported nearly 3.4 million visits last year, estimating hat 2016 visitors spent $286,786,300 in nearby communities.

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