Ahead Of National Park Fee Hike, Anxiety Lingers In Estes Park
Speak now or forever pay more to enter the country’s most popular national parks.
Friday, Dec. 22 is the last day to submit a public comment on a proposal to increase entrance fees at 17 parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park. After that, the National Park Service will determine if - and by how much - it will ramp up the cost during parks’ peak seasons.
The term “peak season” refers to a park’s busiest contiguous five-months in a given year. For Rocky, that’s June 1 - Oct. 31.
In October, the NPS announced it would consider raising entrance fees to help chip away at an $11 billion maintenance backlog. The proposal suggests raising Rocky’s fees to $70 per private, non-commercial vehicle, $50 per motorcycle, and $30 per person on bike or foot. It also calls for increasing the fees for commercial tour operators.
When more than 65,000 public comments poured in, the National Park Service extended its comment period by 30 days to give park-goers and members of Congress time to consider the price jump, according to the agency.
Since extending the public comment period, the NPS has received an additional 35,000 submissions.
“[The fee increase proposal] is really to enhance the visit,” said Kathy Kupper, a NPS spokeswoman. “So that when people do make the effort to go to Rocky, the roads are good, the facilities are good and hopefully we encourage them to come back time and time again.”
But many residents and business owners in Estes Park aren't convinced.
The resort town has a year-round population of just over 6,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Each year, more than 4 million tourists flood the area, generating nearly $500 million of economic activity according to the NPS.
Estes Park Mayor Todd Jirsa argues a higher entrance fee would discourage many of those visitors from coming. Last month, he wrote a letter to the park service requesting it consider an incremental increase, as opposed to a direct jump to $70 dollars.
“We support the need for new funding to address the maintenance backlog, but this proposed rate hike would only raise a fraction of the needed revenue to address the $11.3 billion backlog, and would mean millions of Americans would no longer be able to afford to enjoy their public lands,” he wrote. “It also has the potential to severely damage the economic health of the surrounding communities, including Estes Park.”
The NPS proposal would bring in an estimated additional $70 million of revenue per year, according to the agency’s website.
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Jirsa also cautioned the park service against raising the fee increase due to competition with the $80 annual “America the Beautiful” pass which gives visitors access to all federal lands for an entire year. If more visitors purchase the annual all-park pass online instead of purchasing Rocky-specific passes, the park itself receives much less of that revenue, he wrote.
“Are we discriminating against people who may not be able to afford $70 dollars a day to come here?” he asked.
A more reasonable increase of around $10 would generate much-needed revenue without discouraging a large portion of visitors, he said.
Backlash to the fee proposal isn’t limited to Estes Park, though. Last month, Lyons Mayor Connie Sullivan submitted a similar letter.
"The economic health of our community depends on a healthy, functioning public lands that is accessible to all Americans of varying income levels," she wrote.
A group of 11 attorneys general from around the country also banded together to urge the NPS to reconsider the increase.
The fee increase proposal is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding the NPS. Last week, President Trump scaled back two national land monuments in Utah to the chagrin of environmental activists and Native American tribes there.
On Dec. 12, the NPS announced it would offer 4 fee-free days for parks in 2018, down from 10 fee-free days in 2018.
- Jan. 15, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Apr. 21, the first day of National Park Week
- Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day
- Nov. 11, Veterans Days
The NPS’ proposed entrance fee increases would hit commercial vehicles especially hard, according to the Estes Park Development Corporation. During peak season, Estes Park guides hardly go a day without showing tourists the area’s sky-high mountains and shimmering lakes.
The proposal would slap them with additional license application fees, management fees, and an increased entrance fee determined by the number of visitors each tour company brings into the park.
Bruce Davies gives local history tours to 1 to 4 people at a time out of his Honda Accord. He said a fee increase of this magnitude would likely drive him out of business. Right now, he charges $125 per tour. With the proposed increase, he’d have to charge more than $300 per tour just to break even, he said.
"I just feel like it's being taken away from me," he said. "This dream I had to be the guide and the steward of the land."
Davies gave 149 tours this year - the most he’s ever done in his 4 years as a tour guide - and he remembers each one distinctly. There was the Arkansas man, inspired by John Denver's song "Rocky Mountain High."
He saved money for his whole life to come to Rocky, Davies said.
"To see the fire in the sky," he said. "Or however it goes."
Then there was the surprise proposal at 10,000 feet.
A young couple, a man and woman from Texas, booked his tour one day. That morning, the man called and asked Davies to find a special spot within the park. He knew just the place: A spot with sweeping views of the mountains called Many Parks Curve.
“There were other people there and I told them that something special was happening, “ he said. “It was beautiful. She cried. Everybody clapped. It was pretty cool.”
Davies said he plans to write a comment to the NPS before next week’s deadline, urging them to increase the commercial vehicle entrance fee by less.
“We understand that the parks are being loved to death,” he said. “And I understand they need to find a way to bring money in so they can do the backlog of work, but I just don’t think this is the right way to go about it.”
The NPS says it will issue a decision on the proposed increases in early 2018.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of comments received by the NPS.