Environment

Trump Might Make You Pay $70 to See the Grand Canyon

The fee hikes would pay for park infrastructure like roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines and bathrooms.

Photo Credit: Erik Harrison/Shutterstock

As summer approaches and millions gear up for an anticipated pilgrimage to America's national parks, many travelers are holding their breath in anticipation of a possible fee hike at 17 of the nation’s most visited and profitable parks.

Proposed last October, the fee increase would see the cost per vehicle to Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion national parks more than double to $70 during the busiest five months of the year. As it stands, the cost per vehicle is between $25-$30, depending on the park. The proposal also includes fee hikes for individuals and motorcycles during peak season, as well as for park-specific annual passes.

"This is a very significant increase," said Ani Kame’enui, director of legislation and policy for the National Parks Conservation Association, who added that the park service didn’t do any prior research or analysis before proposing the fee hike. "That ticket price is not something that’s terribly accessible to all of our communities, both nationally and internationally."

What’s more, if implemented, the increase might not be so easy to later roll back. "I don’t have a lot of faith in their ability to admit mistakes," she said of the current administration.

Under the proposal, the peak-season fee hikes will generate an added $70 million that the department said would be used for "badly needed" improvements to park infrastructure like roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines and bathrooms. "Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting,” said interior secretary Ryan Zinke, in a statement on the department website.

However, the maintenance backlog at the nation's parks is a staggering $11.6 billion. The estimated $70 million generated by the proposed fee hike would address only 2 percent of the deferred maintenance at the 17 parks, and an average of $47,000 would go to address deferred maintenance at parks that don’t collect fees, according to calculations made by the NPCA.

"We were astounded by what little money that came down to," said Kame’enui. At the same time, the interior department recently repealed the Consolidated Federal Oil and Gas and Federal and Indian Coal Valuation Reform Rule, which would have generated an estimated $75 million for taxpayers in royalties from oil, gas and mineral extraction on public lands.

"There have been reports that estimate that the Interior Department is short-changing taxpayers by an average of $1 billion a year by not charging proper royalty rates and similar fees to oil, gas and coal companies that are tearing oil, gas and coal out of public lands," said Theo Spencer, senior policy advocate at the National Resources Defense Council. "If they were serious about the park backlog, they would be serious about making sure the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth for things taken from taxpayer-owned lands."

There has been considerable pushback against the proposed fee increases, for which a public comment period ended just before the New Year. Last December, more than 80 businesses and representatives from communities that rely on the tourism generated by national parks wrote a letter to Zinke, expressing "deep concerns" about the "drastic” impact a drop in visitors to the parks would have on their businesses. An Outdoors Alliance for Kids poll found that nearly seven in 10 Americans are opposed to the move. Eleven attorneys general have signed a letter decrying the fee hike, arguing that "all Americans" should have access to national parks, especially communities that have "often been under-represented, including inner-city children and Hispanic American and African American populations.”

If implemented as proposed, the fee hikes would be introduced incrementally in May or June of this year, depending on the park. The peak season for Joshua Tree, in California, began January 1, and the vehicle fee currently remains unchanged. According to National Parks Service representative Chelsea Sullivan, the department is reviewing over 100,000 comments received during the proposal’s public comment period. "We expect to complete that process in the coming weeks,” she wrote in an email to AlterNet.

Of course, the fee hike is just one way the current administration is seeking to dramatically refashion the landscape of the nation’s 417 national parks. Multiple measures either proposed or already set into motion over the past year have the potential not only to markedly curb public access to the parks, but significantly shrink the nation’s portfolio of public lands and broaden the harmful environmental footprint of activities permitted on them.

Conservationists and environmentalists fear the kind of the harmful development that could happen under Zinke, a recipient of significant donations from the oil and gas industry. Last year, when Zinke sent the White House a secret report that reportedly suggested eliminating large swaths of several national monuments, the Interior Department published quotes from press releases issued by Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform—two groups are funded by the Koch brothers—as "news" praising the plan. In 2016, tax forms revealed that the Koch brothers channeled money into the Prosper Foundation, an Arizona-based group that has been fighting a plan to ban uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.

Under the auspices of promoting “energy independence,” a March 2017 executive order required all agencies to review "regulations, orders, guidance documents, [and] policies" to prioritize the extraction of fossil fuel and nuclear energy resources on public lands. The executive order has triggered recommendations like the roll-back of a uranium mining ban near the Grand Canyon, while earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management rescinded a 2015 rule that set standards for hydraulic fracturing on public lands.

Last December, President Trump signed proclamations designed to significantly carve up the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah—which are protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act—opening them up to potential drilling, mining and logging.

"This isn’t just an attack on just one thing, this is an attack on all of it,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, who added that some of the proposed changes and rollbacks concern efforts that have taken many years to put together. "Taxpayers are the ones who own these lands, and especially in the west, these wide-open spaces aren’t readily available. It’s irreplaceable once it’s gone."

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Daniel Ross is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in AlterNet, The Guardian, FairWarning, Newsweek, and a number of other publications.