Guides: New fee proposal a killer

November 22, 2017 GMT

Jason Williams worries his wildlife viewing business is at risk of owing upwards of $1 million annually in commercial fees to drive tourists through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

His concern stems from a National Park Service proposal that would standardize and overhaul the fees assessed to commercial road-based tour operators, charging the most at the agency’s highest-revenue parks. If the plan goes through unchanged, it would mean a full-sized tour bus passing through northwest Wyoming’s two parks during the summer months would be on the hook for $2,400. A Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris van that Williams dispatches for a full-day trip into Yellowstone would incur a $740 charge — costs that would be passed onto clients, he said.

“And that’s before they pay for our service,” Williams said. “The price will be so outrageous that I think in many cases they will just go on their own.

“I’ve heard from several other businesses,” he said, “that there’s a good chance this will put them out of business.”

Alarm over a proposal that drastically increases the cost of commercial road tours in the parks has been lost amid the hoopla over an entrance fee hike that’s being eyed for the general public. Both proposals stem not from individual parks but from the U.S. Department of Interior, the Park Service’s government parent that’s led by Donald Trump appointee Ryan Zinke.

The commercial tour fees are not scheduled to shift to the new structure until May 2019. The general entrance fee hikes — which bump the cost for a noncommercial vehicle from $25 or $30 to $70 — are scheduled to come online most places in May 2018.

The steepest hikes are targeted at the 17 highest-revenue parks in the nation during the five busiest months of the year — that’s May through September, at most.

While Grand Teton and Yellowstone are most relevant to News&Guide readers, the list also includes Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Shenandoah, Acadia, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon and Denali parks.

Peak pricing for commercial road tours that take place in sedans would be $160. The rate for vans is proposed at $370, minibuses at $600, small buses $900 and large buses $1,200. Because neighboring Yellowstone and Grand Teton assess separate fees, the rates would be often be doubled for local tour takers.

The intention of the proposed rate hikes is to raise money to provide billions of dollars to repair crumbling infrastructure that’s plagued the National Park Service for decades.

The overall “deferred maintenance” backlog at the agency’s 417 units is $11.3 billion, and both Teton and Yellowstone parks are major contributors. Grand Teton’s maintenance tab was last estimated at $202 million, and Yellowstone’s total came in at $738 million.

For every $10 in entrance fees handed over at a park gate — including from commercial tours — $8 stays within the collecting park. Some 55 percent of the retained funds, $4.40 of $8 in this example, must be put toward deferred maintenance.

In 2016 Yellowstone raked in $14 million at its gates during the busiest year since formation in 1872. About $2 million came off the top to pay for the cost of collection, and the balance went to pay for overdue road replacement, trail upgrades and other infrastructure improvements.

“We spent a lot of that money on things like parking lots,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said.

Yellowstone officials haven’t predicted how much more revenue will be retained if the fee hikes go through unchanged, Wenk said.

“We’ll just have to see — if it’s enacted — what the effect on Yellowstone will be,” he said.

Across the Park Service the forecast is for a $68.5 million bump, which is 34 percent more than entrance gate income a year ago but just 2.3 percent of its overall $2.93 billion base operating budget. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget siphons $400 million out of Park Service coffers, a figure that dwarfs any gains from higher fees.

Park visitors are likely to buy more $80 all-parks passes, which diminishes some of the return of the fee hikes. The $80 goes to the visiting park only if the pass is sold there, otherwise there’s no entrance gate income at all.

Taylor Phillips, who owns Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, also worries that the jump in commercial tour fees will slash his business.

“It seems like it would really impact our operations,” Phillips said, “and it could price people out from having guided experiences.

“In essence, if there are fewer people taking tours, it’s going to translate to more cars on the road,” he said. “Every time you see one of our cars on the road, you can think of that as one or more vehicles off the road.”

At Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, the rate for a private all-day Yellowstone tour for four people is $1,400. Under the current fee structure, guided park visitors also have to pay for an entrance pass if they don’t already possess one.

The National Park Service’s proposal would tack on another $740-plus a $10 per person fee, Williams said.

“Their trip with us would cost a total of $2,180 before gratuity,” he wrote in a comment letter addressed to Zinke. “That means 36 percent of the cost of their trip would be park fees.”

Asked their opinions, Wyoming’s park superintendents didn’t bash the fee hike proposals emanating from Washington, D.C.

“All I can say,” Wenk said, “is that we have significant needs, as you can see with the numbers in Yellowstone National Park.

“The national parks are still an incredible bargain,” he said. “I think that parks for a long time have been undervalued, like Yellowstone.”

Grand Teton’s superintendent, David Vela, said that he thinks it’s “important” for the agency to look at issues like deferred maintenance “holistically.”

“I think that they feel this is the best way to achieve that,” Vela said. “Anytime we’re able to address a critical need in the agency — and that is our infrastructure — it’s a good thing.”

Williams stressed that his frustration is not with local Park Service personnel.

“This is coming from the Department of Interior and up high in D.C., not from our local parks,” he said. “It’s important that people know that.”