Outdoors

Future park projects hinge on entrance fee increase

Imagine your family is going to host a big reunion to celebrate a major family anniversary. You’ll want to spruce up the house, make some additions, fix that leaky toilet, add some landscaping. Of course, that will take some money.

That’s exactly the idea behind Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks proposing an increase in entrance fees from $15 to $25.

The entrance fee increase and other proposed fee hikes are meant to generate much-needed revenue to alleviate a backlog of maintenance projects, update park displays and improve services in time for the 2016 centennial celebration of the National Park Service’s creation. All 131 units that charge fees are reviewing possible increases, a move initiated by the National Park Service headquarters.

After making an initial announcement in late September, the two parks last week formalized their proposals.

The announcements also triggered a public comment period that will run through Dec. 31. The parks are expected to make their recommendations to the west regional office by mid-January, with the new fees to take effect in time for next summer.

While parks managers are urging people to comment online, Olympic staffers also are taking their message to the people.

Rather than hosting public meetings, they have been attending meetings held by community and civic groups, said park spokeswoman Barb Maynes.

“We have found we talk to many more people that way than asking people to show up at a high school on a certain night,” Maynes said. “Even if we have a hot topic, we still don’t get many people to attend a meeting.”

The park has offered to meet with about 100 groups on the Olympic Peninsula, be it at a group’s meeting or at park offices. Maynes said they have eight sessions already scheduled.

Mount Rainier is taking a similar approach, said acting superintendent Tracy Swartout.

“Making sure we spend quality time reviewing the comments will be time well spent, rather than spending the time and resources trying to hold public meetings,” she said.

She cited a series of three meetings to gather public input on the plan to reintroduce fishers to the park. Just seven people attended.

Meeting with groups creates a better dialogue, Maynes said. On Tuesday, Olympic staffers made a presentation to the Port Angeles Business Association.

“One comment that was repeated several times was the idea of phasing in fee increases, as opposed to our proposal, to avoid the sticker shock,” Maynes said.

That is an option, as long as the full increase is fully implemented by 2017, Maynes said.

USING FEE MONEY

Fees collected at entrance stations and campgrounds are an important revenue stream for the parks. Mount Rainier was the first park to charge a vehicle entrance fee, charging $2 for a seven-day visit beginning in 1907. The last fee increase at Mount Rainier was in 2006, when it rose from $10 to the current $15.

Park officials said 80 percent of the money collected goes into park coffers and pays for projects to improve visitor services and facilities. At Mount Rainier, this has been just under $2.5 million a year from entrance fees, park passes and campground revenues.

“If the full increase goes into effect, we might net another $1 million a year to go to these projects that have a direct visitor connection,” Swartout said.

In recent years, these funds have paid for restoration work on meadows damaged by visitors, trail and campsite improvements, long-needed picnic area repairs, updates for aging interpretive exhibits, and accessibility improvements at the Sunrise Visitor Center, according to a Mount Rainier news release.

Just this summer, new utility conduits were installed during the road rehabilitation project from Nisqually to Paradise.

Future projects that would be funded with fee revenue include the continued rehabilitation of restrooms, trails and campsites, and further accessibility improvements parkwide. A new online backcountry reservation system would also be funded. The park also would continue to use some of these funds for the ongoing work in the Carbon River Trail corridor.

At Olympic, fee revenue has been used for trail and wilderness bridge repair, new visitor center exhibits and operating the park’s wilderness information program.

“We did hear quite a bit of support for the projects that we use the fee money for,” Maynes said of the Port Angeles business gathering.

ECONOMIC DRIVERS

In stating their cases for the increase, managers at both parks cited the economic boost they provide gateway communities.

A National Park Service economic impact report released in March showed that slightly more than 1 million visitors to Mount Rainier in 2012 spent $36.8 million in communities around the park such as Elbe, Ashford, Packwood and Greenwater. That spending supported more than 430 jobs in the area, not including the 100-110 permanent and 180-200 seasonal staff working for the park and 450-500 commercial concessions service employees in or near the park.

“The mountain attracts visitors from across the United States and around the world,” Swartout said in the March report. “While their destination may be the park, they also spend time and money in our local communities.”

A similar report for Olympic, released in July, showed that in 2013, more than 3.08 million visitors spent $245.9 million, supporting 2,993 jobs in the area.

Across the system, parks help drive the nation’s economy. The impact report showed a return of $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service.

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