We are loving Yosemite National Park to death.
Surging visitor numbers — a tad under 5 million in 2016 that represents an increase of a million over 2013 — means more and more ranger personnel are committed to traffic control than maintaining Yosemite.
Even before the recent surge in visitors, Yosemite had a backlog of $500 million in maintenance including $100 million for work that is identified as critical. Our country’s 59 national parks all together have a $12 billion backlog of maintenance.
Currently to access Yosemite you pay $25 a vehicle for one week. That jumps to $30 between April and October when more than 75 percent of the nearly 5 million annual visitors flock to the 1,190 square miles that constitutes the park with most jamming the 5.94 square miles within Yosemite Valley.
The National Park Service wants to increase the fees significantly during the five busiest months at the 17 parks that are used — and essentially abused — the most.
It will take the fee from $30 to $70 between May 1 and Sept. 30. The fee would remain $30 in April and October. The $25 fee now in effect between Nov. 1 and March 31 also would remain unchanged.
U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein among others have called the proposed fees hikes “arbitrary and unjustifiable.”
Some have slammed the rate proposals given the current administration’s pitch to cut funding for the National Park Service. They say it will exclude many Americans from using national parks.
Before either side of the political fence takes a buzz saw to the proposal, they need to note a few things:
— This is a National Park Service proposal that has been in the works for years.
— The $70 million the fee hike will generate a year is restricted to park maintenance.
— The $12 billion backlog didn’t happen overnight and it’s been ignored a long time by Congress and presidents of blue as well as red persuasion.
— There was a time not many decades ago when entrance and concession fees covered maintenance costs.
— Between 1997 when the basic entrance fee for a national park was $20 and 2014 when the basic entrance fee was increased to $25, the purchasing power of $20 eroded by $9.64 based in inflation measurements provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The basic entrance fee of $25 now being charged between Nov. 1 and March 31 was inefficient to the tune of $4.64 when it went into effect three years ago.
— If the new rate were to go into effect, those who contend it will exclude many Americans from accessing the 17 national parks seem to forget there will be no rate hike at Yosemite, as an example, from Oct. 1 to April 30. So, if any increase above current park fees eliminates someone from financially going to Yosemite it will be only for five months a year as there is no change for the other seven months.
— During the peak months, the cost would translate to $10 a day as opposed to the current $4.33 a day. Keep in mind that is not per person but per vehicle.
— At $70 million a year that the increased fees would generate, it would take 170 years to address the $12 billion backlog and that is assuming two insane premises — namely additional maintenance needs won’t pile up and that there will be absolutely no inflation.
The outcry that visitors are being asked to “largely shoulder” maintenance issues is a political fantasy. It’s clear the federal budget process and/or other means are desperately needed as the $70 million extra a year is a drop in the bucket. At the same time if everyone was being a tad more honest, much of the maintenance needs are because of visitors. The 59 parks are just that parks — not wildlife preserves. That intent was to protect nature in a defined area so that people for generations could enjoy them.
The maintenance problem goes away if you lock the gates to the national park, stop maintaining everything from roads, trails, and campsites to concessions, and just let nature take its course.
You could make the case that fees should be raised for every month of the year and that the high charge for the five heaviest months of use is way too low.
The higher fees won’t exclude people if they just get out of their cars.
Let’s say the typical vehicle heading into Yosemite now paying $30 for a week’s access has three people. That comes to $10 per person. If they travel with someone else – think a version of ride share but heading to Yosemite instead of commuting — six people in a car would bring the per person cost to $11.50 per person under the higher rates.
Forced carpooling due to economics — if any senator wants to call it that — would have the added plus of reducing vehicle traffic that in turn would reduce congestion and an assortment of problems related to maintenance.
In short, the proposed fees are anything but “unjustifiable and arbitrary.” If anything, they should describe the fees as “woefully inadequate.”
With all due respect, Feinstein has served in the Senate since 1992 meaning as conditions have deteriorated in Yosemite to the point that there is $500 million in maintenance backlogs of which $100 million is critical Congress hasn’t done much of anything to address the problem but allow one paltry rate hike that didn’t even cover the ravages of inflation.