Fee proposal worries park’s neighbors

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Fall colors up Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

Matt Brake is a retail salesperson at Rocky Mountain Outfitters in downtown Kalispell. He sells outdoor gear to people who disperse from town to take advantage of the many outdoor recreational opportunities the area has to offer, like Glacier National Park.

His job is one of 16,000 that rely heavily on tourist dollars in Glacier Country, according to a recent report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

Starting next year, Brake’s Glacier-bound customers could have to pay higher fees to get inside the park. The National Park Service has proposed charging visitors at 17 high-traffic parks $70 for a seven-day pass to enter by private vehicle during a five-month peak season. Motorcyclists would pay $50; cyclists and pedestrians, $40. Those would represent a substantial increase from the current seven-day rate of $30, $25 and $15 respectively. An annual pass would cost $75 under the new plan, up from $50 now.

These proposals are open for public comment until Nov. 23. If enacted, they’re projected to raise Park Service revenue by $70 million per year — money that can fund sorely needed repairs and improvements.

But Glacier Country’s residents and policy-makers doubt the proposal — and worry it will price them out of their signature attraction.

“I think it will be harder for some local people I know who use the park a lot,” Brake said. “I think you will see less local use.”

In recent decades, Park Service funding hasn’t covered all the costs of repairs and maintenance. The system has gathered an $11.3 billion maintenance backlog. Park Service spokesperson Jeremy Barnum told the Daily Inter Lake that “we are looking at a variety of options about how we can address the aging infrastructure of parks such as Glacier.”

In a phone interview from Washington, D.C., he went on to say that “fees have long been a part of maintaining national parks.” Each park keeps 80 percent of fees collected.

The proposal released Tuesday, Barnum stresses, would be a “targeted fee increase,” only applying during the busiest five-month periods at 17 of America’s most-visited parks. Those with senior and military access, and other special passes would see no increase.

“As we researched the proposal, we looked at things like historical visitation data to parks, what the historical fees have been,” he explained. “We feel like we are still proposing a good value to these visitors.”

But Montana’s two senators disagree.

In an email to the Daily Inter Lake, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said, “I’m looking into why there is such a significant increase [in fees] to enter Montana’s national parks and where those additional dollars would go. We need to ensure that we aren’t pricing folks out of the ability to enjoy our national parks.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester agreed, and linked the raise to poor budgeting. Last year, the House appropriated $778 million for facilities, operations and management in the national parks. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal recommends funding those same activities at $685 million.

“So as these fees bring in $70 million, they cut $93 million out of it,” Tester told the Daily Inter Lake in a phone interview. “The budget was a step in the wrong direction, and I think this fee increase is a step in the wrong direction.”

Tester called on Montanans to submit public comments opposing the increases, and warned that their “impacts are cutting back people’s ability to go to parks, the secondary impacts are negative impacts on the businesses around the parks.”

The former impact will likely bruise Glacier Country more than outside visitors.

Data on Glacier National Park visitors’ origins are scarce, but one 2014 survey of Going-to-the-Sun Road activity found that Montanans were 13 percent of all drivers.

For the 87 percent from elsewhere, a $40 increase might not keep them — or their tourist dollars — away, says Jeremy Sage, associate director and economist at the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

“The money that they’re spending to get into the park is just a drop in the bucket of the total they’re spending in the entire trip... So if there is a drop, there would be a small drop,”

Jerry Meerkatz is president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, a Kalispell-based nonprofit that provides support for small businesses in the Glacier region. He agreed that the price hike would not be prohibitive to out-of-state tourists but could be to Montana residents.

“I don’t think people look at the price of entrance to the park, at least at that price, and go, ‘oh my goodness, I won’t go there.” Meerkatz said.

“If I don’t believe it affects out-of-state tourism, I don’t think it affects local businesses. I think the bigger issue will be to the local residents who have enjoyed and spent a lot of time there.”

Many locals agree with Meerkatz that while higher park fees may be an effective way of increasing revenues to address the maintenance backlog, it comes at the cost of those who live here year round. Some residents share Tester’s concerns they are bearing the brunt of poor federal planning.

“I’m confused as to why there is such an increase,” Brake said. “Shouldn’t [Secretary of the Interior Ryan] Zinke be advocating for a budget increase if there is a need?”

Public comments on the Park Service’s proposal are being accepted until 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 23. They can be submitted online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/proposedpeakseasonfeerates, or by mail to 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop: 2346 Washington, D.C. 20240.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407. Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4438.

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