Hiking national parks good; hiking entry fees bad

Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in Olympic National Park often sees big crowds and full parking lots.
Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in Olympic National Park often sees big crowds and full parking lots. Staff file

Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks might be Washington’s most spectacular outdoor gems, but years of neglect have placed them at risk of gleaming a lot less brightly for future generations.

A multi-billion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance projects is the cumulative cost of welcoming throngs of visitors and absorbing mother nature’s fickle temper.

Eleven years ago this month, for instance, Rainier was pounded by a historic flood that wiped out roads, bridges, trails and campsites — a disaster from which the park is still recovering.

To gain ground on all the needed work at 17 national parks including Rainier and Olympic, the Trump administration would have us believe the $25 standard vehicle entry fee should be raised to $70 during peak season.

But charging visitors nearly 200 percent more to enjoy many of America’s transcendent open spaces is a harsh and ultimately ineffective idea — a move that would price the poorest people out of parks while collecting a fraction of what’s needed for repairs.

It would hurt our local tourism economy, too. Phil Freeman, owner of the Copper Creek Inn, Cabins and Lodge at Mount Rainier, called the Trump proposal “an existential threat” to his business. He and other Northwest parks boosters joined Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell at a podium Monday to denounce the fee increase.

Say this much about Trump’s Interior Department officials: At least they recognize our national treasures need cash in a bad way. Congress’ history of underfunding the park system has led to a staggering $12 billion backlog of work, including an estimated $300 million at Rainier and $140 million at Olympic.

As a means to catch up, however, the proposed gate fee increase falls well short, raising only $70 million a year in projected new revenue.

A bipartisan group of Congress members, led by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, has a better solution.

The National Park Service Legacy Act would funnel up to $500 million a year in oil and natural gas royalty funds into the park system. That’s a reasonable price to pay for extractive industries whose prosperity has long been linked to public land access.

The setting sun casts a glow on Mount Rainier as a meadow of Lupine is consumed in a gathering dusk in the sub-alpine meadows above Paradise. Dean J. Koepfler Tacoma News Tribune file

As for jacking up entrance fees, we hope the White House sees it as nothing more than a trial balloon, and that it plunges back to earth under the strain of broad unpopularity. The good news is that the public comment period, originally set to expire on Thanksgiving, has been extended to Dec. 22.

Some contend that a higher gate fee would remain a bargain compared to, say, a family theme park holiday. A national park entry pass is good for seven consecutive days, which at $70 would amount to only $2.50 per person per day for a family of four. You’d spend nearly that much on Mouse ears for your Disney vacation.

The problem is that many folks — especially working-class families — aren’t able to enjoy a national park for a full week, but they’d still have to pay the $70 fee.

Unlike Canada’s national parks, which sell daily passes, U.S. parks only offer a weekly or annual pass option. (The latter wouldn’t change under Trump’s plan and is looking better all the time, costing $80 for a pass that covers entry to all parks for a year.)

We’d be more inclined to support charging more for a weekly pass if it came with the option of a pro-rated daily entry fee.

It’s entirely proper for our government to ask users to pay their share; it has expected this since the Park System was created in 1916. In his initial annual report that year, the superintendent of national parks held firm to the principle that “those who use and enjoy these playgrounds shall contribute toward their administration and upkeep.”

Today, with these natural wonders at risk of being loved to death — there were a record 331 million visitors last year, up 7.7 percent from 2015 —our leaders must address years of poor stewardship without further delay. Adopting the National Park Service Legacy Act is a logical place to start.

But let’s not raise the price of admission for those who can least afford it and who most need the rejuvenating immersion into America’s wide-open spaces.

Rob Smith, executive director of the National Parks Conservation Association, perhaps said it best at Monday’s Seattle event hosted by Cantwell:

“In a region where it's getting increasingly expensive to live indoors,” he said, “we shouldn't price people out of going outdoors.”

Make yourself heard

What: A proposal to increase the entry fee to 17 U.S. national parks for the peak five months each year.

The new cost: $70 per vehicle (includes all occupants), $50 per motorcycle and rider(s), and $30 per person on bike or foot. Entry fee is good for seven consecutive days.

Deadline to comment: Dec. 22.

To comment online: parkplanning.nps.gov/proposedpeakseasonfeerates

To comment by mail: National Park Service, Recreation Fee Program, 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, DC 20240.