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International visitors should pay more at national parks

It should come as a surprise to no one that the National Park Service’s proposal to more than double the cost of a week-long pass to Yellowstone National Park has been ill-received by locals. No one welcomes the prospect of having to pay more taxes or fees for something — especially when that something is the opportunity to enjoy public lands.

We continue to believe the Park Service’s plan to hike the cost of a seven-day pass to Yellowstone or Grand Teton from $30 to $70 is a bad idea, and we’re apparently not alone.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney recently asked a roomful of local residents what they thought of the entrance fee proposal. They responded with some thumbs down — and a couple residents remarked that they just wouldn’t go to Yellowstone anymore.

Assuming some locals did stay away from the park, it would be a shame, if not a crisis; fewer locals traveling to Yellowstone wouldn’t necessarily have a big impact on our economy — and Powell, Cody, Clark and Meeteetse residents might be able to schedule a spur-of-the-moment trip in October, when the weekly pass would still be $30.

But imagine if travelers from other areas decide a trip to Yellowstone is just too expensive. What damage could that cause to our economy?

Researchers from the University of Montana recently estimated that the Park Service’s proposed fees could — even by just slightly driving down visitation — result in a loss of $3.4 million for the Greater Yellowstone area’s economy. Even if their numbers are overstated, the fact remains that there are businesses and livelihoods at stake.

The authors of the study from the university’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research suggest that Park Service officials do more research before doubling the fees. We think that sounds wise.

But perhaps the most intriguing idea contained in the institute’s paper is the suggestion that the Park Service could get some additional revenue for needed projects by raising the fees charged to foreigners.

The University of Montana researchers looked at pricing data for national parks scattered across 50 other countries and found that “almost three-quarters” charged international visitors higher prices than their own citizens.

“Similar to American National Parks, parks throughout the world are increasingly being tasked with providing more and more of their budgets from visitor fees,” the researchers wrote. “Many have seemingly recognized … entrance fees are a small portion of the international traveler’s travel costs and as such they are less responsive to increases in prices.”

According to the paper, the National Park Service’s proposed fee hikes would cause Yellowstone visits from locals to fall by nearly 3 percent, while international visits would fall by just seven-hundredths of 1 percent.

It all raises the issue of fairness. The bulk of the funding for our national parks comes not from entrance fees, but from Congress — that is, American taxpayers.

Shouldn’t taxpayers be getting some kind of break on their fees in recognition of the fact that these are national parks?

Rep. Cheney told local residents she would have no problem with international visitors paying higher gate fees; she compared the concept to state residents getting lower rates on state services. For example, consider how residents pay lower fees to visit state parks or to purchase hunting and fishing licenses.

The idea is not a panacea: Foreigners make up only a small percentage of the visits to Yellowstone National Park, so it’s silly to think that they can be called upon to pay all the bills. But, given the backlog of maintenance projects within our national parks, every dollar helps.

We believe the Park Service should take a hard look at coming up with an entrance fee structure that recognizes the contributions made by American taxpayers by offering them a lower fee versus international visitors.

Certainly, the United States should and must continue to welcome national park visitors from across the globe with open arms. But we can also reach out with a more open hand, too.

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