The looming federal government shutdown could ruin some vacation plans for Americans hoping to enjoy national parks and monuments this weekend. If Congress fails to pass a spending bill that hits President Trump’s desk by midnight Friday, all the national parks would be shuttered.
Republicans carried a fair share of the blame for ruining family trips to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite during the last two government shutdowns. Both times, in 1995 and 2013, the GOP controlled Congress. But there are reports that the Trump administration is working on plans to keep hundreds of national parks open even in the face of a government shutdown.
Regardless of the parks’ short-term availability, 17 of the most popular national parks could soon become an unaffordable luxury to lower-income Americans if the National Park Service (NPS) implements a pricing system that would raise admission from around $30 per vehicle to $70 per vehicle during peak season. Other proposed fees include $50 per motorcycle, $30 for a person on bike or foot and $75 for an annual pass to a specific park.
NPS spokesperson Kathy Kupper explained that each of the 17 parks currently has its own entry fee but that they would all have a uniform price if the proposal is implemented.
“It’s between $25 and $30 to get into any of those parks, and that’s good for a whole car of people for a week,” Kupper told Yahoo News. “Regardless of what the price is now, if it were to be implemented it would be $70.”
Other, less-visited parks would have varying fees, as they do now. Many are free.
The bipartisan NPS Advisory Board, made up of citizens with science and management expertise, was not consulted before these changes were proposed under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in October. In fact, the board, which was established in the 1930s to advise the interior secretary and the NPS director under the Historic Sites Act, hasn’t been consulted on anything since Trump’s inauguration.
The board’s main function is to approve national natural and historic landmarks. But its members recently advised the Obama administration on climate change, youth engagement, historic-preservation gaps and other matters.
On Monday night, however, nearly every member of the advisory board abruptly quit out of frustration that Zinke did not convene a single meeting with them last year. They signed a letter, first reported by the Washington Post, complaining that Zinke has ignored their requests to meet and shows no interest in hearing their concerns — effectively freezing out the experts chartered by Congress to help the service safeguard the United States’ natural treasures. The letter, drafted by advisory board chair Tony Knowles, read in part:
“For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership between the NPSAB and the DOI as prescribed by law. We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda. I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success. However, from all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside. I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case.”
Belinda Faustinos, the former executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, was among the nine out of 12 advisers to resign. She said they were able to develop tremendous momentum on important issues in recent years, and she commended several outgoing colleagues for their significant contributions on important issues, such as Rita R. Colwell on science, Carolyn Finney on diversity and Milton Chen on education.
“We were on a roll, getting things done, and wanted to continue that, knowing that there might be a little change of perspective with the new administration,” Faustinos told Yahoo News. “But as more and more of that administration’s policies came to light … in particular through Zinke’s office, it became clear to us that we did not want to be affiliated, even remotely, with some of the things that were being done.”
She was also troubled that, more than a year after the retirement of NPS Director Jon Jarvis, no successor has been named, and that the board hasn’t been asked — either formally or informally — for its input on any of the actions the secretary has been considering.
The interior secretary did not consult with the board over the fee hikes, or a recent decision to end a ban on plastic water bottles in the parks.
“It’s not only about not consulting. More importantly, obviously some of the people making these decisions and recommendations live in a rarefied field that most of us don’t,” Faustinos said. “We’re trying to increase access to parks, so changing the entry fee for that is just crazy. I don’t understand the thinking there. Charging more for certain parks, it just makes that look frankly like an exclusive club that only people who have the money can go to.”
She clarified that this is her personal opinion. But based on her experience with the other board members, she thinks they would share her sentiments.
The NPS said the additional cash raised by the increased fees would go toward renovating and restoring the park system’s aging infrastructure: campgrounds, roads, bridges, bathrooms, waterlines and other facilities.
The NPS held a public comment period for the proposal late last year. Kupper said the agency is analyzing the roughly 100 comments it received. She expects a final decision in the coming weeks — late to mid-February at the latest.
“We haven’t made a determination if they would be implemented,” she said. “If so, they would be implemented in anywhere from two to six weeks.”
The new proposal establishes peak-season entrance fees for the busiest five-month stretch at each park. Peak season starts on May 1 for Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion National Parks. Peak season starts on June 1 for Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks. And the NPS would kick off peak season for Joshua Tree National Park as soon as possible.
These top-revenue parks collect 70 percent of the entrance fees for the national park system.
According to the NPS, the new prices would increase revenue by $70 million each year, a 34 percent increase over the $200 million collected during the 2016 fiscal year. The service said 80 percent of the additional money will go toward the park where it’s collected, and the rest will go toward other national parks, in fulfillment of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
The service noted that only 118 of its 417 sites charge an entrance fee and that the other 299 national parks are free.
“Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting,” Zinke said in a statement at the time. “We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today. Shoring up our parks’ aging infrastructure will do that.”
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