Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has wisely ditched his agency’s plan to jack up entrance fees for the 17 most popular U.S. national parks.
The proposed $70 fee per car for a one-week pass was ludicrously high. It represented a fist to the public's chin from an Interior Department secretary – and his president – who have treated taxpayers like chumps.
We give Zinke credit for finally getting something more right than wrong.
Still it is fair to wonder whether a $5 increase on June 1 will do much but irritate visitors. Entrance fees at Mount Rainier will rise to $30 and fees for destinations like Yosemite go to $35.
All Americans should have reasonable access to our country’s truly great, inspiring open spaces, and so should our country's visitors.
Congress now must pick up the slack. Lawmakers face a national parks maintenance backlog estimated at $11.6 billion, and no amount of fee hikes can ever make that up.
That means finding new sources of money. Fortunately Washington-based lawmakers are standing up for a smarter way to fund our National Parks Service.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Tacoma and Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn were co-sponsors of a measure last year to provide stable, long-term funding. Kilmer represents the tourism-dependent communities surrounding Olympic National Park, and Reichert's district includes Rainier,
Their National Parks Service Legacy Fund would dedicate a small share of revenues from royalties the government receives for oil and gas extraction and use them to start catching up on repairs.
"In Washington … we are privileged to have some of the nation’s most breathtaking national parks in our backyard,” Reichert said last May when the fund was proposed. "But like anything else, these natural treasures require maintenance. In order to maintain and preserve our local (U.S.) parks, including (Mount) Rainier National Park, and continue attracting international visitors, we must make sure our trails, bridges, sewer systems, and other maintenance projects are taken care of."
The legacy account goal is to provide $50 million a year to parks through fiscal year 2020. The amounts would triple in the following years and jump to $500 million during 2027-47.
These sums put a dent in a mountain-sized need, but the concept is a start.
Two-thirds of national parks still charge no fees, though there is logic in doing so for the most popular parks.
A fee can encourage car-pooling in delicate environments. Fees provide a small, steady drip of revenue for parks maintenance. Lastly, a reasonable fee reminds the public that not everything is completely free.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, our state’s junior senator and top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is right to keep an eye on the Interior Department. She criticizes its opaque handling of public funds and questions the impact park fees have on communities.
Cantwell has backed permanent funding of parks through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives natural resources royalties. That also is good.
In the end members of Congress must back new ways to bring fresh dollars to parks.