Would you pay $70 to visit Mount Rainier?

Sunset Reflections on Mount Rainier Shot from Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, Washington (Photo: Jim Stiles)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Would you pay $70 to visit Mount Rainier or Olympic National Park?

The National Park Service is considering a steep increase in entrance fees at 17 of its most popular parks, mostly in the U.S. West, to address a backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects.

Visitors to Mount Rainier and Olympic, as well as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion and other national parks, would be charged $70 per vehicle, up from the fee of $30 for a weekly pass. At others, the hike is nearly triple, from $25 to $70.

Outfitting people for mountain expeditions is what staff at Ascent Outdoors in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood do best. It's also a business that could be impacted by a plan to hike peak-season entrance fees at Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks.

“Tends to be a lot of aging infrastructure,” said Andrew Magnussen, who handles marketing and events for the shop. “I know parks have been underfunded for many years and there needs to be some additional revenue coming from somewhere."

Many believe maintenance costs should fall to Congress, not visitors.

“There's a lot of people that already don't like how high it is,” Logan Thorning of Olympia. “Raising the price even more is also going to turn some people away too."

Still, repairs are desperately needed as record numbers of visitors strain resources.

“I wouldn't put the blame on the National Park Service at all. They are just trying to maintain it,” said Elaine Buchignani, who lives in Seattle.

A 30-day public comment period opened Tuesday. The Park Service says it expects to raise $70 million a year with the proposal at a time when national parks repeatedly have been breaking visitation records and putting a strain on park resources. Nearly 6 million people visited the Grand Canyon last year.

"We need to have a vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids' grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "Shoring up our parks' aging infrastructure will do that."

Annual $80 passes for federal lands would not change, though fees would go up for pedestrians and motorcyclists. The higher fees would apply only during the five busiest contiguous months for parks, for most that's May through September when many families are on vacation.

The proposal would not affect several free weekends and holidays at parks throughout the year.

It comes not long after many of the parks that charge entrance fees raised them. The rationale is the same this time around — to address a backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects.

The Park Service estimated deferred maintenance across its parks at $11.3 billion as of September 2016, down from $11.9 billion in 2015.

Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said maintenance costs should fall to Congress, not visitors.

"We've supported increases at the parks, they are a huge value for the price of entrance," he said. "But we want to look closely at this and we want local communities to look closely at this to see if it would impact visitation because we don't want to price people out of the parks."

U.S. Senator Maria Cantell (D-Washington), a ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also spoke out against the proposed increase in entrance fees.

Cantwell released a statement on Monday, that said in part: "While Secretary Zinke flies around on private jets using our taxpayer dollars, he is hiking up the fees all American families pay to enjoy our National Parks."

Not all Park Service sites charge entrance fees. The 118 that do keep 80 percent of revenue and send 20 percent into a pot to help all park units with things like fixing restrooms, signs, trails and campgrounds.

The proposal applies to Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion in Utah; Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree in California; Grand Teton and Yellowstone in Wyoming; Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington; Shenandoah in Virginia; Acadia in Maine; Rocky Mountain in Colorado; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Denali in Alaska.

Denali is structured differently because it's largely a drive-through park. The fee there would not be per vehicle, but per person, going from $10 to $30.

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