Study: Yellowstone fee hikes could hurt locals


Researchers at the University of Montana say proposed fee increases at Yellowstone National Park would drive down visitation and cause gateway communities to lose millions of dollars worth of business from tourists.

National Park Service officials have proposed raising the entrance fee at 17 popular national parks to help deal with billions of dollars worth of maintenance projects that have been put on hold.

In Yellowstone, Park Service leaders want to raise the cost of a seven-day vehicle pass from $30 to $70 from May through September.

Researchers at the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research say the proposal would drive down Yellowstone visits by 1.2 percent; based off 2016 numbers, that would mean about 45,800 fewer people visiting the park.

“As with most goods or services in our economy, a price increase leads to a decrease in demand. In the case of a national park, this means a reduction in the number of visits,” Jeremy Sage, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The study concluded that the drop in visitation would, in turn, lead to a 0.6 percent drop in tourism spending in the Greater Yellowstone area. That would mean a loss of $3.4 million, the authors say; the National Park Service previously estimated that visitors spent around $524.3 million in Yellowstone’s gateway

communities in 2016.

The institute’s researchers worked off the assumption that raising entry fees will have the same negative effect on visitation as rising fuel costs, figuring that an entrance fee is a lot like a toll.

The institute predicts that visits by “locals” — that is, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho residents — will drop by nearly 3 percent and that visits from other Americans and Canadians will fall by 1.1 percent. Foreign visits, meanwhile, would dip by just 0.07 percent under the study’s projections.

As for why the change would discourage locals more than international visitors, the authors say that “a $40 increase on a $30 entrance fee is a large change for local visitors within an hour or two’s drive to the park, yet rather small for an international traveler paying more than $1,000 per airline ticket.”

A Wyoming resident currently faces an average travel cost of $106.48 — meaning the proposed $40 fee hike would make the trip 37.6 percent more expensive, the study says.

For an international visitor, however, the extra $40 in entrance fees — tacked onto a Yellowstone trip that already costs more than $4,480 on average — represents only a 0.9 percent bump.

The paper from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research recommends that the National Park Service reconsider the fee hikes and thoroughly investigate the potential impacts of the proposal.

“At $70, concerns may be legitimately raised that many families are being priced out of visiting the major national parks in the U.S.,” the authors wrote. “As such, the rationale behind the increased revenue strategy should be questioned.”

The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research paper suggests charging international visitors a higher fee. In reviewing other national parks across the globe, the authors say that’s “common.” For example, Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania charges its residents roughly $4.45 a day for admission, while visitors from other countries pay about $70.

That idea of raising national park rates for foreigners was also suggested to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., at an event in Cody on Dec. 9.

“I mean, they’re coming to use our resources that, in return, we’re having to pay a higher fee,” said Wapiti resident Denise Shirley.

“I wouldn’t have any problem with that,” Cheney responded, suggesting buses could face higher rates.

While “I think we want to encourage visitors, obviously,” she indicated such a system wouldn’t be much different than states offering lower fees to in-state residents.

“I know there has been hesitation, but I’m not exactly sure what the obstacle’s been,” Cheney said, adding, “I know it’s something that they’ve been looking at.”

Earlier, Cheney asked the Cody audience what they thought of the proposed fee hikes in Yellowstone. The murmurs through the crowd indicated general displeasure.

“I wish they could figure out a way — and they may be doing this — where they could have a fee increase on the big busses that come through, for example, without having to have an impact on everybody else, or have a resident discount that applies more broadly,” Cheney said. “It’s a challenge across the board.”

She said that, in all her meetings with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, “the first thing he mentions is the backlog in the national parks, the maintenance backlog, and his need for additional revenues.”

The Park Service says it has around $12 billion worth of maintenance projects that have been awaiting funding. The proposed fees increases would raise an extra $68.6 million a year, according to Park Service estimates, bringing the total amount of annual entrance fee revenue to $268.5 million.

Zinke has said hiking the fees and shoring up the national parks’ infrastructure would help protect and preserve them for future generations.

Most of a park’s entrance fees — 80 percent — go to projects within that park. The other 20 percent is distributed to other national park sites.