The National Park Service faces a number of challenges after turning 100 last year.
But none is greater than a Congress and White House that refuse to invest in roads, water, building maintenance and ecological restoration in the face of soaring visitation. The proposal to hike entrance fees at the Grand Canyon and 16 other national parks from $30 to $70 a car to reduce the capital repair backlog is only one more example of their detachment from reality.
Don’t believe us? Let’s do the numbers for the NPS:
--Annual budget: $2.55 billion (2018 proposed)
--Capital improvement backlog: $11.3 billion
--Annual visitation: 330 million
--Annual admission fees: $200 million
--Increase in revenue from proposed admission fee hike to go toward backlog: $70 million
--Decrease in proposed NPS 2018 budget for facility operations and maintenance: $93 million
So in other words, Western park visitors will have their entry fees more than double during the busiest five months of the year, only to see the increase canceled out by budget cuts. And it’s a shell game that has been going on for years as parks like the Grand Canyon are forced to increase entry fees – which account for only a fraction of their budgets -- because Congress fails to make up the difference. After adjustments for inflation, federal appropriations have declined in the last decade while user fees are up nearly 40 percent.
We suppose the argument could be made that park visitors should be paying for more than 10 percent of the Park Service budget. Why should general tax dollars from people who don’t use the parks support 90 percent of the operations?
That’s not a question limited to national parks. Truckers pay higher fees to account for wear and tear on highways and bus riders have to pay fares for rides. But in both cases, user fees pay only a fraction of total capital and operational costs. Most park users are happy to pay a user fee that they think fairly represents the value of the experience, so $70 for a week’s entry to a family already spending $2,000 or more for their Grand Canyon visit of a lifetime might seem reasonable.
DAY'S NET PAY
But for the occasional day user from Flagstaff, $70 is out of whack and $80 a year is still a sizable sum to take out of the checking account. Even at the higher minimum wage of $10.50, that’s nearly a day’s net pay. And as noted above, the higher fee is likely to be backed out by budget cuts.
That last point can’t be emphasized enough. Even though Grand Canyon gets to keep 80 percent of its entry fees, those amount to less than $30 million a year on a budget twice that amount. And even with concessionaire fees and money raised by groups like the Grand Canyon Association and volunteer hours, the park has a growing backlog of maintenance as visitation grows to nearly 6 million a year, putting pressure on law enforcement, resource protection and visitor services just to keep up. For a World Heritage Site and known as one of the world’s seven natural wonders, the U.S. isn’t living up to its obligations.
And what’s on the to-do list? Three of the main trails — South Kaibab, Bright Angel, and North Kaibab — are in need of repairs costing $33 million. Another $11 million is needed in camping areas, picnic shelters, and at scenic overlooks. Desert View Drive, which runs along 25 miles of the East Rim, needs more than $18 million in repairs. At the canyon’s North Rim, Cape Royal Road — leading to the widest panorama of any Grand Canyon overlook — requires more than $10 million in improvements. More than 200 historic structures also need to be repaired, at a cost of $5.5 million.
Yet the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, is facing a $1.5 billion annual cut in the proposed White House budget, and park supporters are starting to look for public-private partnerships. One idea is a state or regional tax, which might find favor with lawmakers and voters, given that annual visitor spending creates 9,800 jobs with an estimated payroll of $334 million, nearly as much in one year as the entire backlog of repairs.
The Grand Canyon belongs to the world, but its name is synonymous with Arizona and its trails and vistas are as familiar to many Flagstaff residents as our back yards. Like our public schools, Grand Canyon deserves a long-overdue dedicated funding source. At the least, use it to defray entry fee hikes that are a dishonest shell game. If we don’t stand up for the Canyon, who will?