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Public opinion taken off-line on Yellowstone fees

Nancy Thompson of Manitoba, Canada, enjoys a walk through the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 25. It will likely cost more to enter the park next year, but comments on the proposed increase are not being accepted online. Nancy Thompson of Manitoba, Canada, enjoys a walk through the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 25. It will likely cost more to enter the park next year, but comments on the proposed increase are not being accepted online. Tribune photo by Ilene Olson

Administrators limit input on proposed increases

When administrators at Yellowstone National Park began seeking public input on a proposal to increase entrance fees, something was conspicuously missing: an ability to submit feedback online.

Unlike their counterparts in Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Grand Teton and other national parks, Yellowstone administrators chose to only allow comments that are mailed or hand-delivered to park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs. Written comments also were accepted at meetings in Cody, Jackson and Bozeman.

Among other increases, Yellowstone officials are proposing to begin charging $30 for a three-day vehicle pass (versus the current $25 permit that gets people into both it and Grand Teton for a week) and $60 for an annual Yellowstone pass (up from a $50 pass good at both parks).

It appears to be the first time in more than eight years that Yellowstone has put forward a notable proposal and not allowed people to weigh in through an online form or email.

“We felt that offering people the chance to write a letter and send it in the mail, along with our regional open houses, offered adequate opportunities for public comment,” Al Nash, a spokesman for Yellowstone administrators, said in an email.

The Tribune reviewed approximately the last 50 news releases in which Yellowstone officials announced they were seeking public input. Among dozens of projects over the past eight-and-a-half years — ranging from controversial winter use plans to an unremarkable replacement of a failing sewer line — Yellowstone administrators provided an opportunity for online or emailed comments in every single instance.

The last time the public had to physically mail in their comments was in May 2006, when the Park Service was proposing to “do routine rehabilitation trail work” on a trail in Yellowstone’s northwest corner. (Coincidentally, that was the same month the park last raised entrance fees.)

Routine trail improvements proposed in the years since then — including one announced Friday — have allowed people to submit feedback by email.

When pressed on why Yellowstone officials decided to treat the proposed fee increase differently than all the other projects put forward in recent years, Nash declined further comment.

The stringent commenting requirements were noted by a couple of the roughly 150 people who posted comments on Yellowstone’s official Facebook page about the proposed entrance fee hikes.

“So only locals get to comment? (No fax or email comments allowed) I thought this was a National Park not just a Montana and Wyoming (and Idaho) park,” wrote Cevin Ormond, a Salt Lake City area resident. “What bureaucratic knucklehead thought that one up? Trying to pull a fast one on the American people again I see.”

“Why did you even bother to post this if we have no way to comment on this?” asked Judith Ann Haphey. “I am working in Florida and can’t possibly get to one of your meetings! Boo on you!”

An unscientific Tribune review of the informal comments left on Yellowstone’s Facebook page indicated that a majority (somewhere around 55 percent) supported the increases, with the rest opposing higher rates completely or arguing for doing them in phases.

The fees hikes are part of a Park Service-wide push to raise entrance fees to — as National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis described it — “invest in the improvements necessary to provide the best possible park experience to our visitors.”

In August, Jarvis directed regional park service managers to explore raising fees, while also telling them to “thoroughly engage their stakeholders and document the support and concerns expressed by the public.” Each regional director “must verify that there is general public support for proposed fee changes at each park” before moving forward, Jarvis wrote in a memo.

Yellowstone’s proposed fee increases would take effect next spring. Comments can be brought to the mailroom in the park administration building in Mammoth or mailed to: Management Assistant Office, Attn: Entrance Fee Proposal, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY, 82190. They’re due by Dec. 5.

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