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Get Ready To Pay More To Enter Some National Parks

Oct 1, 2015
Originally published on October 5, 2015 2:09 pm

The cost of getting into some national parks increases on Thursday.

The rates will go up despite the fact that visitation at parks is up, which means bigger crowds, congested traffic and busier visitor centers. But more people aren't translating into a big boost for park budgets. For example, visitation at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is up 20 percent so far this year and Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion are also seeing double-digit increases. The parks are also seeing the strain. About 100 parks are planning an entrance fee hike.

Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park, says the last increase was in 2009.

"When you're a park that's been around for 100 years, you have an old infrastructure, and for us that's paved roads, unpaved roads, trails system," she says.

But the extra money from increased entrance fees will be a drop in the bucket. Overall, for example, Rocky Mountain National Park estimates it has nearly $70 million in maintenance needs. Across the country's national parks there's an estimated $11.5 billion needed to cover upkeep.

"That's run-down visitors' centers, that is unmaintained trails and crumbling roads," says Emily Douce with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. That means welcoming even bigger crowds, and Douce hopes a bill recently introduced in Congress will ease the financial strain.

"Unfortunately, over the last several years, Congress has not put the money toward getting these parks ready for the next century of service to the American people," Douce says.

President Obama voiced support for the bill. A key aspect of it would match public and private dollars, an idea first floated under the George W. Bush administration. An era of tight budgets and gridlock in Congress makes the bill a hard sell. Proponents like Douce hope the anniversary will galvanize support.

The bill would also raise the rate for a senior citizen pass — which is currently $10 for a lifetime pass — as a way to boost national park funding by an estimated $1.5 billion.

"It's so cheap for senior citizens," says Jim Cooney, who recently used his pass to get into Rocky Mountain National Park. "I think they ought to charge us more."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The cost of getting into some national parks go up today. The parks are attracting more visitors, meaning bigger crowds, congested traffic, busier visitors' center. Yet, more visitors aren't translating into a big boost for park budgets. Grace Hood, from Colorado Public Radio, has this story from Rocky Mountain National Park.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Here's a typical park visitor's checklist. Take pictures of stunning vistas from Trail Ridge Road. Go on a hike near Bear Lake. And be prepared to wait in lines - lots of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you today?

HANK HOSTETTER: Good, folks, welcome to Rocky Mountain. Our basic entrance fee is $20. That's good for up to seven days.

HOOD: At this visitors' entrance, Ranger Hank Hostetter collects fees and sells passes. Starting today, weekly rates go up to $30. That money will pay for park improvements like picnic tables, restrooms and trail maintenance.

HOSTETTER: I started out volunteering. And then they approached me and said would I consider being a seasonal ranger. So I said, gee, pay me to come to the mountains?

HOOD: Being surrounded by mountains is something Hostetter loves about the job. The natural beauty is also attracting bigger crowds. Visitation at Rocky Mountain is up 20 percent so far this year. Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion are also seeing double-digit increases. And they're seeing the strain. That's one reason why about 100 parks are raising entrance fees. Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says the last hike was in 2009.

KYLE PATTERSON: When you're a park that's been around a hundred years, you have an old infrastructure. And for us, that's paved roads, unpaved roads, trail system.

HOOD: But the extra money from increased entrance fees will be a drop in the bucket. Overall, this park estimates it has nearly $70 million in maintenance needs. Across the country's national parks, there's an estimated $11.5 billion needed to cover upkeep.

EMILY DOUCE: That's rundown visitors' centers. That is unmaintained trails and crumbling roads.

HOOD: Emily Douce is with the National Parks Conservation Association. Next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service. That means welcoming even bigger crowds. Douce hopes a bill recently introduced in Congress will help ease the financial strain.

DOUCE: Unfortunately, over the last several years, Congress has not put the money towards getting these parks ready for their next century of service to the American people.

HOOD: President Barack Obama voiced support for the bill. A key aspect of it would match public and private dollars, an idea first floated under the George W. Bush administration. And era of tight budgets and gridlock in Congress makes the bill a hard sell. Proponents like Douce hope the anniversary will galvanize support. Cars slow to a crawl near a brown pasture framed by the Rocky Mountains. Visitors are pulling over to the side of the road to watch a male elk and a dozen females.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELK BUGLE)

HOOD: That elk bugle is something some here have never before heard. For Jim Cooney of Fort Collins, it's part of an annual tradition.

JIM COONEY: We do camping up here because then we hear them all night. I've got some great videos of rutting.

HOOD: Cooney got into the park with his senior citizen pass, which he says cost a pittance.

COONEY: I'm a senior citizen. It's so cheap for senior citizens, $10 for a lifetime pass. I think they ought to charge us more.

HOOD: Cooney could have his wish granted. The Congressional bill would raise that rate. It's just one way it would boost national park funding by an estimated $1.5 billion. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Rocky Mountain National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.