Last week, Secretary of State Ryan Zinke announced a proposal to increase entrance fees to the 17 most-visited national parks during peak season, and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) made the list. If enacted, the one-day entrance fee to Rocky Mountain National Park would climb in peak season (beginning June 1) from $20 per car to $70, from $10 per individual on foot or bike to $30, and from $20 per motorcycle to $50. The annual America The Beautiful Pass, which affords access to all federal lands for one year, would remain at $80, and season-long passes to individual parks could be purchased for $75.
The fee increases are expected to generate an additional $70 million in revenue annually across the National Parks system, according to a National Parks Service press release, which would go towards addressing the National Parks Service’s $11.3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance across the parks system.
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In 2016, RMNP saw more than 4.5 million people come to the park—a record number of visitors. But the park’s deferred maintenance backlog totals more than $75 million, according to RMNP Public Affairs Officer Kyle Patterson. Patterson wrote in an email that over the past year, RMNP has invested more than $8 million from various project funding sources to address deferred maintenance throughout the park. She says major projects included $2.4 million in pavement preservation, $2 million in the rehabilitation of water and wastewater systems, $1.7 million in trail rehabilitation, and $600,000 in building maintenance.
But the proposed fee increase has concerned several business owners in Estes Park—the town immediately outside RMNP.
“We do have concerns that local businesses will suffer significant sales decrease during the summer, which is their most profitable time of the year,” Elizabeth Fogarty, Visit Estes Park president and CEO, wrote in an email. She says she supports addressing the maintenance backlog and staffing challenges at RMNP, but the proposed sudden hike in peak season prices might keep some visitors away. “Our hope is that if there will be national park entrance fee increases, they will be smaller percentage increases and incremental over time…To limit access based on affordability would prevent access to many who look forward to outdoor and nature vacations in these national parks and the wilderness experiences they provide.”
Andy Hitch, owner of Backbone Adventure in Estes Park, says that while he thinks maintenance needs to be done “on any road,” he worries major maintenance projects in the park would actually deter tourists, who would avoid the park if access to attractions were to be closed for infrastructure repair. He also takes issue with the size of the fee increase. “That would personally keep me from going up there. That’s ridiculous,” Hitch says.
Andy Morgan, owner of the Dunraven Inn in Estes Park, says he expects the change in fee structure will deter more day-trippers. Visitors who might come from the Front Range to spend an afternoon of RMNP, he says, might choose not to do if they cost was to climb from $20 to $70. However, he thinks his business will still fare well.
Individuals from Colorado’s swelling urban and suburban population make up the bulk of Morgan’s recently increased customer base. He says his business has grown dramatically during the park’s peak season and he now sees business year-round, rather than the Memorial Day to Labor Day season he used to depend on. He says the increased number of patrons he’s seeing are mostly Coloradans, not out-of-state or international tourists. Because he can’t handle any higher volume of patrons during peak season, anyway, he’s not worried about the proposed fee increase negatively impacting him. “I do think it’s a good idea to address [the maintenance backlog],” Morgan says. “I don’t know if I support that large of a fee increase.”
The public comment period on the proposed fee increases is open until November 23.