National Park Service expands passenger fees

Permitting expanding to 302 new national parks on Oct. 1

The National Park Service (NPS) will impose permit requirements and entrance fees at all 417 of its parks this year, adding permit and fee requirements at the 302 parks that do not currently charge fees.  The service also is increasing passenger fees at 35 parks at which fees already are charged.

The operator who packages a trip—whether it’s the tour operator that chartered the buses or the motorcoach company itself—is the one responsible under the new plan for obtaining an advance use permit and paying passenger fees. This clarifies uncertainties found in a previous plan.

If the motorcoach operator leased the bus but did not market the tour, however, it still may be required to hold a permit to enter some parks, something allowed at the discretion of the park supervisor and seen as a “double dip for access” by industry advocates like Bronwyn Wilson, president of the International Motorcoach Group.

Application requirements can still vary among the 417 parks, even under the new rule, increasing complexity in a system that is already causing confusion among operators, she said.

NPS posted the new regulations online at about the same time it announced a series of late April webinars on the topic of entrance fees. The current plan is a new version of policies that were announced in 2017 to increase revenues to address a backlog of needed repairs in the park system.

One fear is that the new policies could discourage tourism—national park tourism is currently a $16.9 billion industry that supports 295,000 jobs—and potentially add to congestion at the most popular parks.

Because operators need to apply to each park individually, they may not choose to include visits to as many parks in their tour itineraries, Wilson said. The result could be an increase rather than decrease in congestion at some parks “as operators choose to visit major parks for a longer period of time rather than visit multiple parks.”

The authority given individual park superintendents to create their own additional rules could create impossible burdens, especially for foreign operators booking tours, Wilson said.

Prehistoric granaries along the Colorado River above Nankoweap in Marble Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by Mark Lellouch. The oldest human artifacts found within the park are nearly 12,000 years old and date to the Paleo-Indian period. There has been continuous use and occupation of the park since that time. The park has recorded over 4,300 archeological resources with an intensive survey of over 5% of the park area.

“There is a discussion by many parks to have a time entry system, so tour operators would not be able to publish and market itineraries a year or more in advance without being certain they will have access to a park,” she said. “This causes definite legal issues within the European Union. Their travel laws are specific; what you advertise must occur in the same manner as it is presented in your brochure.”

For U.S. operators, the lack of uniformity as well as additional expense creates new issues, said Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer of the United Motorcoach Association.

“Individuals and businesses deserve better than this,” he said, “and it is time Congress exercised their authority and restored accessibility to the national parks for all visitors, not just the few that can pay expensive fees.”

Beginning Oct. 1, here’s what will happen, according to the new policy:

  • Road-based commercial tour operations will be required to obtain a commercial use authorization (referred to as a CUA) for each of the 417 parks. Even in parks without entrance fees, road-based commercial tour CUA holders will pay a $5 per-person CUA management fee due upon submission of the required annual CUA report that must be filed at the end of each year by tour operators.
  • Entrance fees and CUAs currently imposed at 115 parks will remain. Per-passenger fees of $20 are in place for 2019 and will remain in effect at Bryce Canyon, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion national parks.
  • Fees will be increased on Jan. 1 2020, at 35 parks. The $5 per-passenger toll or “CUA management fee” will be charged at the 302 parks that will not charge an entrance fee this year.

CUA applications will be made individually to each park next year. However, the National Park Service says it is working with a contractor to develop an online system to ease the application and reporting process for operators. According to an information sheet, “We anticipate the system will allow applicants to submit multiple applications at one time,” though no anticipated release date is mentioned.


Who pays?

Who pays is a critical and interesting part of the new equation, one that could leave charter companies that lease their vehicles but don’t offer tours themselves out of the fray. Or maybe not.

“The responsibility for obtaining a road-based commercial tour CUA will fall on the company that packaged, priced and sold the tour,” explains an NPS fact sheet posted on the park service website. That company is also defined as the one that determines the origin, destination and scheduling of the trip.  A charter motorcoach company that advertises tours to national parks meets the definition of road-based commercial tour and must have a road-based commercial tour CUA.

Confusing the situation is the autonomy given to each park. Any park superintendent can still require that both tour operators and bus owners hold CUAs “if managing the use is necessary for preservation of park resources and values (e.g., limited or controlled parking availability).”

The rejected 2017 proposal would have doubled or tripled at the nation’s most popular parks. NPS said that that plan would have raised $70 million annually toward an estimated parks repair backlog of $11.3 billion. About 98 percent of the 110,000 comments submitted on that plan were negative with several noting that the pending Trump administration budget proposal cut $400 million from park spending. The projected revenue gain resulting from the current plan is not mentioned in the information posted by the NPS.

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