By David MacDonald
Several weeks ago, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke floated a proposal to increase entrance fees at 17 of the most popular national parks, including Acadia. The aim is to provide additional funding to reduce an $11.3 billion maintenance backlog at parks nationwide. Under the proposal, the cost of a one-week vehicle entrance pass to Acadia National Park would go from $25 to $70 from May until November — essentially the entire tourist season. The cost of an annual pass to Acadia would increase from $50 to $75.
Since the announcement, Friends of Acadia (FOA) staff and board members have been consulting with partners, community members and park officials to help shape our response, which was formally submitted to the government last week.
There is no question that our national parks, including Acadia, need more financial support at this time of growing interest and expectations. The key is finding the right balance of revenue sources to address those needs. FOA supports a broader approach to confronting the maintenance backlog, rather than asking visitors, many of whom, as taxpayers, already pay for park operations, to shoulder the burden of generating additional revenues. We think that it will take innovative legislation, better federal appropriations, park service policy changes, partnership contributions, volunteer support and, yes, some fee increases thoughtfully implemented to fully address the challenges faced by our parks.
FOA fully recognizes the importance of addressing the deferred maintenance backlog, estimated at $71 million at Acadia. However, we are concerned about the magnitude of the fee increase proposed and that it may serve as a deterrent for average citizens, especially Maine residents and day visitors who have lower incomes than the national average, to come to the park. The U.S. Census reports that the median household income in 2015 for Hancock County, in which most of Acadia is located, was $47,030, 14.5 percent less than the national median. Area residents and others from Maine may be less likely to visit Acadia, the national treasure in their backyard, if the price from May through October is almost tripled.
Years of chronic underfunding from Washington created the deferred maintenance backlog in our national parks. Even if the proposed fee increases were implemented in 2018, the projected $70 million in new revenues would be offset by the proposed $93 million cuts to the maintenance funding for the National Park Service proposed by the current administration in the fiscal year 2018 federal budget. It is counterintuitive for a fee increase to be suggested at the same time that both the operations and the maintenance budgets for parks are being slashed. Additional operating dollars from Congress are needed to ensure that the National Park Service can take on deferred maintenance projects and prevent Acadia’s infrastructure from falling into further disrepair.
FOA supports innovative legislation to increase funding to address the deferred maintenance backlog. The National Park Service Centennial Act, passed in the 114th Congress, established a national challenge fund to encourage public-private investments to address the shortfall. FOA has helped Acadia successfully compete for these funds and complete projects on three hiking trails, as well as rehabilitate vistas and drainage systems on the carriage roads. Just this year, new legislation, the National Park Service Legacy Act, was introduced and supported by FOA and both of Maine’s senators to establish a new, dedicated source of funding from unallocated offshore oil revenues for high priority deferred maintenance projects.
FOA also supports innovation within the national parks regarding fee programs. Acadia National Park and community partners have been working to raise awareness and support in the surrounding communities of the importance of purchasing entrance passes. We are concerned that the sudden and steep nature of the proposed fee increase could undermine much of the good will and collaboration that has been growing steadily in recent years around the controversial topic of fees. Rather than implementing a steep increase in fees over a five month season, perhaps the NPS should experiment with congestion pricing or shorter-period (e.g. 2-day or 3-day) entrance passes as affordable options for visitors.
FOA also would support extending the time frame within which fee money must be obligated or expended by the National Park Service. The majority of Acadia National Park’s entrance fees are collected in late summer or early fall, making it difficult for the park to plan for and achieve targeted spend-down rates by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. National Park Service policies must be broadened to enable locally appropriate solutions to charging and expending fees in the most efficient and locally appropriate manner.
FOA looks forward to continuing to be part of the solution. We hold endowments and make annual grants to the park for the maintenance of Acadia’s trails and carriage roads. We support the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, and we hire seasonal stewardship staff to guide nearly 3,000 volunteers who contribute almost 13,000 hours of service annually. We have previously supported fee increases at Acadia National Park and would likely support another, as long as it is modest and justified.
The importance of generating more funds to address deferred maintenance in our national parks cannot be overstated. We will continue to partner with the NPS to help reduce the maintenance backlog here at Acadia. However, the steep fee increase proposed for Acadia and 16 other national parks beginning in 2018 should be reduced in scale and combined with other solutions to create a multipronged, long-term solution. Acadia deserves such an approach, given the critical role it plays in the economy and quality of life of our communities and the state of Maine.
David MacDonald is president of the Bar Harbor-based Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit organization that supports Acadia National Park through fundraising and grants, as well as volunteer work, advocacy and cooperative programs.