The ticket price to paradise is rising.
With the equivalent of the entire US population hiking, rafting, or schussing through national park lands each year, America's most beloved treasures have become victims of their own success. Maintenance backlogs now approach $5 billion, and with no sign of Congress turning generous, park officials are looking to tap visitors' wallets for badly needed cash.
Entrance and user fees are set to increase - even double - at up to 100 national park sites under a three-year test program approved by Congress. The project is expected to generate $80 million a year, most of which would be earmarked for park maintenance and improvements.
A proposal to raise funds via corporate sponsorships was abandoned after a firestorm of public opposition. But most park officials don't expect the public to balk at the higher fees.
"We don't think anyone is going to be deterred by an increase," says David Barna, spokesman for the National Parks Service in Washington. Park fees have not risen for nearly a decade. And most users consider current rates, ranging from $3 to $10, eminently fair. Still, it's unclear how high fees can go before park users rebel.
Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park want to raise the current $5-per-vehicle gate fee to $10 this spring. For a vacationing family of four, that's still a bargain when compared with a trip to the cinema, for example, especially since the entrance pass is valid for seven days.
But as urban centers spread closer to national parks, day visitors are a growing constituency. For the day hiker, a $10 fee is arguably not such a deal. "I probably wouldn't pay $10 to come here for the day," says Milo Beaver, who made the 35-mile trip from Boulder to hike at Rocky Mountain. "There are so many other places in Colorado where you can hike for free."
Admission fees aren't the only increase on the table. Rocky Mountain park officials plan to start charging extra for back-country permits, guided nature hikes, biking, hiking, and camping. Other parks plan fees for ranger talks, shuttle transportation, and parking.
This broad test of the public's willingness to pay for use of public land also applies to recreation areas managed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service. The Forest Service, in fact, has already begun collecting new fees, including a $3 charge at picnic sites along the Sandia Scenic Byway near Albuquerque, N.M.
Most of the new user fees will take effect after Jan. 1, 1997. Individual parks that want to be included in the federal test program have submitted proposals and now await word from Washington. "We estimate this could bring in an additional $1.2 million to $2 million a year," says Doug Caldwell, Rocky Mountain park spokesman. Eighty percent of that sum would remain at the park, he notes, dedicated to improving visitor facilities.
THE impact of sheer visitor numbers, coupled with a shrinking budget, has clearly taken its toll at national parks. Crumbling roads, overflowing sewer lines, deteriorating buildings, and packed parking lots and campgrounds are the norm. Infrastructure built to accommodate 1 million tourists a year now groans under the weight of crowds five times that size.
Currently, parks get to keep only 8 percent of the fees they collect - about equivalent to the cost of fee collectors' salaries, says Mr. Caldwell. The rest goes to the federal treasury. He says visitors won't mind paying higher fees when they know most of the money will go back into the park.
Lincoln Gup, who heads to Rocky Mountain about twice a month to rock-climb, hike, or snowshoe, agrees. "They need the money, and I think they should raise the fees. I'm willing to pay."
But Ernest Quintana, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park in California, warns that even if parks can keep the new income, there's no guarantee they'll come out ahead. In 1987, the last time park entry fees were raised, revenues jumped $50 million. But the next year, Congress cut the parks' budgets by $50 million, he says.
Park officials often compare the current $10 gate fee at Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon with the $40 admission charge at Disneyland. "I don't see the comparison," says Mr. Quintana, who has not sought a fee increase at Joshua Tree.
"The national parks are meant to be for all people. I don't want to see national parks becoming exclusive areas." Still, Quintana says, "We're going to need some creative solutions. Whether it's increased fees or corporate partnerships, I don't know. But something needs to happen."