New national park fee plan ‘as clear as mud’

WASHINGTON — The latest entrance fee proposal from the National Park Service appears to be less onerous than the plan announced last fall, but the details remain as clear as the silty Colorado River gushing through Grand Canyon National Park during spring runoff.

“As one California operator told me, it’s as clear as mud,” said Ken Presley, the United Motorcoach Association’s vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs and industry relations/COO.

Mike Waters, a member of the California Bus Association board of directors, said that when the topic of the park fee proposal came up at a recent board meeting, nobody seemed to know exactly what it meant.

“From what we can tell, we don’t think it has any changes as far as it affects bus companies,” said Waters, of Pacific Coach Sightseeing and Coach USA in Moss Beach, Calif.

“We still have to apply for a commercial use authorization for every park and pay the entrance fee, which the customer ends up paying. We are still perplexed.”

The park service announced in October that it would double or triple entrance fees at 17 of the most popular national parks to address $11.7 billion in needed repairs and improvements at the 417 parks across the country.

The parks were visited by 331 million people in 2016.

Motorcoach entrance fees would have shot up to between $900 and $1,200 at the 17 parks. Fees would have increased to as much as $70 per private vehicle weekly (now $25 at some parks), $50 to enter on motorcycle and $30 on bicycle or foot.

The park service estimated the fees would have increased park revenue by $70 million per year, a 34-percent increase over the $200 million collected from fees in fiscal 2016.

The government received about 110,000 online comments on the proposal. The National Parks Conservation Association said it found that 98 percent of the comments were critical of the proposed hikes.

Many commenters complained that the higher entrance fees were being proposed as the Trump administration’s budget for next year cut park spending by $400 million.

Tourism industry leaders expressed their views in a February 5 meeting at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the park service. Those attending the meeting included UMA President and CEO Stacy Tetschner, National Tour Association President Pam Inman and American Bus Association President and CEO Peter Pantuso.

Tetschner said the group stressed that charter and tour operators would need at least 18 months to work any fee increases into their planning and marketing. The latest proposal fulfills that request.

In response to the overwhelming negative feedback, the park service announced that it was formulating more reasonable fee increases. In a somewhat complicated advisory, the service announced a “Standardization of Commercial Use Authorization Process for Operators of Road-Based Commercial Tours” that would become effective October 1, 2019.

The advisory states, “All road-based tour operators must apply for and obtain a commercial use authorization (CUA) for every park in which they plan to provide tours.”

As in the past, chartered motorcoaches are intended to be exempt from the CUA.

Each CUA will cost  $300, non-refundable.

Rather than charging a set fee per bus, the new fees will be assessed on a per-passenger basis.

“For parks charging entry fees, the tour operator will pay an entrance fee equal to the appropriate per-person entrance fee for each passenger upon entry to each park; $5 of the fee paid upon entry for each passenger will cover the CUA management fee. Tour operators will not need to pay any additional per person fees.

“For parks without entry fees, the tour operator will submit $5 per passenger CUA management fee with the annual report at the end of the operating season.”

Under the new proposal, personal entry fees will be set at $10 to $20, depending on the park that is visited. Those fees currently range from $7 to $15. The latest proposal drops the previous call for peak-season pricing at the 17 selected parks.

Fees will not be reduced for bus passengers who also hold annual or lifetime park passes.

Waters said that based on his understanding of the proposal, “That is certainly a reasonable amount.”

William Allen, president of Amador Stage Lines of Sacramento, Calif., said it doesn’t appear that fees are increasing all that much.

“The people in the bus are paying it, not the bus company, but it is going to make the trip less desirable,” said Allen, a member of the UMA board of directors.

Allen carries groups to Yosemite National Park, one of the most popular destinations in the U.S.

“I am sympathetic with the parks because they have so much deferred maintenance and they are over-run with people,” he said. “Yosemite is very special, so people will continue to go. They have gotten a real good deal over the years but it has not been an economical thing for the parks, which is why they have such huge deficits. They can’t have a free lunch forever.”

When the new rules take effect late next year, tour operators still will be required to file a CUA application for every park they may visit in the coming tourist season. The parks currently impose their own permitting processes and fees.

“The lack of uniformity and deference to each park is ridiculous,” Presley said. “It’s one park system.”

Waters said the industry hasn’t figured out what they will be doing for the application fees.

“It still looks like we have to file with every park,” he said. “We have been trying to get them to offer a common pass for all the parks. Nothing has changed.”

One of the new requirements for operators is “submitting mandatory annual CUA reports after each CUA operating season (but not more frequently that once a year).”

Until October 1, 2019, “Individual parks may require road-based commercial tour

operators to obtain a CUA to conduct operations in a park. In those cases, parks must use the standard forms but the fees may vary from the standardized process set out above. Road-based commercial tour operators should visit the NPS CUA webpage to stay informed of individual park requirements until the standard process is implemented.”

About two-thirds of national parks currently do not charge entrance fees. The new park service advisory is a bit unclear about the ramifications for tours entering those parks, but CUA and entrance fees may be required after 2019.

Motorcoaches and buses carry 2.1 percent to 29.2 percent of visitors to the most popular national parks, according to annul reports filed by the parks. The park annual reports posted on the park service website are not formatted uniformly and most do not identify vehicle types.

The National Park Conservation Association, which has 1.3 million members, says visitors to all national parks spent $16.9 billion last year. That supported 295,000 jobs and $11.1 billion in payrolls in “gateway regions” — communities within 60 miles of a park.

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