Park Service working toward streamlined application process

The National Park Service promises an online platform will be available by Oct. 1 so commercial tour operators can simultaneously submit permit applications and pay fees to all 419 national parks they may visit. However, individual parks will still be permitted to impose site-specific conditions on the commercial use authorization (CUA) permits for “road based commercial tours.”

During a webinar on April 24, officials disclosed additional details about policies that will take effect in the next federal fiscal year and impose permit and fee requirements at 302 parks that do not currently charge fees and increase fees at 35 parks that currently do. NPS has been working on the policies since 2017 to raise funds for a backlog in park maintenance needs.

The Park Service has produced a helpful Q&A Resource coming out of their recent webinars. It clarifies CUA policies and park entry fees for road-based commercial tours. 

During the webinar, NPS spokespeople revealed that tour passengers under the age of 16 will not be assessed entrance fees at parks that assess entrance fees. However, a $5 per-person “management fee” will be assessed for each passenger under 16 at parks that do not charge “entrance” fees, payable at the end of the year. Tour operators will be required to obtain $300 CUAs for all national parks and be required to file annual reports at the end of the year for every CUA they hold, even if they did not visit each park.

“We hope you guys are excited. The goal is to streamline the administrative process for you and for us internally. It is kind of a win-win,” said Samantha Towery, CUA coordinator for the Park Service. “The online CUA platform will allow you to fill out one application and apply to multiple parks at one time. I envision an interactive map where you are going to indicate the parks where you want to operate. From there you submit your application and accept the specific parks’ conditions.”


Frequently Asked Questions

Visitors were not able to submit questions during the half-hour session, but officials offered answers to these frequently asked questions.


How do you prove you have a CUA?

“You are responsible for providing your guide with a copy of the CUA. Your guide needs to have that on hand when they are operating in the park,” Towery said. “Parks are most likely going to develop their own ID systems. Some parks have had success in developing identification through a card or vehicle sticker.”

What happens if you visit a park without a CUA?

“We never want to turn away visitors,” Towery said. “If you show up at a park entrance station and you don’t have a CUA, you are going to be asked to fill out a form or provide a business card. You will pay the $300 application fee and the per-person entrance fee.”


Are all national parks required to require CUAs and charge passenger fees?

“In some cases implementing the standard CUA process is going to be difficult, generally due to staffing shortages or how the park is set up—whether they have specifically designated entrances,” Towery said. “We did develop a waiver process in which the park can opt out or request to deviate.”


Do tour group passengers who hold NPS passes need to pay an entrance fee?

“Passes will not be accepted for commercial entrance fees,” said Chris Williamson, NPS recreation fee coordinator.


What services may a transportation provider offer customers?

“Road-based tour operators provide no other services except those incidental to road travel, things like onboard interpretation and incidental stops,” Towery said. “A park superintendent may allow minor additional services for things like short day hikes. If you want to lead backpacking trips you would need an additional ‘guided backpacking’ CUA.”


Why are the CUA requirements and entrance fees being raised?

“At least 80 percent of the per-person fees and 100 percent of CUA management fees remain at the collecting park and are used on projects to enhance the visitor experience, such as improving parking lots, restrooms, roads, trails, new wayside exhibits, etc.,” Williamson said.

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