Elected leaders, merchants oppose park fee hike

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County leaders oppose a proposal to hike entrance fees at the Shenandoah National Park.

The Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to adopt a resolution in opposition to a National Park Service proposal to increase the daily entrance fee from $25 to $70 per vehicle during the peak season.

Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox asked if such a fee increase would deter visitors from coming to the park and ultimately reduce the amount of money the service would collect.

The Front Royal Town Council discussed a similar resolution at a work session Monday.

The National Park Service announced plans Oct. 24 to increase the daily entrance fee at 17 parks around the country from $25 to $70 per vehicle during the peak season that covers June through October. The increase, if approved, would take effect June 1.

Information provided by the town notes that the proposal also includes an increase in the peak season per person fee from $10 to $20 and per motorcycle from $10 to $30. The non-peak season per person entrance fee would increase from $10 to $12. The annual pass would increase from $50 to $75 with no distinction between peak and non-peak seasons.

The council’s resolution states that approximately 116,000 vehicles entered the national park during the peak season in 2016, a large percentage of which stopped in at the Front Royal Visitors’ Center in that time. The center tries to divert national park visitors to local restaurants, motels and other businesses. The proposed increase could jeopardize tourism and the revenue the town expects to receive, the resolution states.

The National Park Service estimates the increase would generate an additional $70 million across the system, with 80 percent of the revenue from the fees remaining within the park. The money would go toward addressing an $11.3 billion backlog of deferred maintenance needs.

The proposal also 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; Acadia in Maine; Rocky Mountain in Colorado; the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Denali in Alaska.

County Administrator Doug Stanley pointed out that while officials understand the need to improve parks infrastructure, and that 80 percent of the revenue from fees would go to Shenandoah National Park, staff members remain concerned with the amount of the proposed increase. The daily fee per vehicle has increased from $15 to $25 since 2015. At the time, many people supported the increase to help cover aging infrastructure at the parks.

However, the latest proposal calls for increasing the daily fee during peak season by 180 percent.

“As proposed, this increase could potentially have serious implications on the number of people visiting the largest tourism destination in our region and thus impact the multitude of restaurants, hotels and businesses that depend on the park to make a living,” Stanley commented. “In addition, the proposed increase will impact those most on the lower end of the economic ladder by making it less affordable for them to access our nation’s fantastic park system.”

The Front Royal Warren County Chamber of Commerce recently encouraged elected leaders, business owners and residents to voice their concerns about the proposed fee increases with the National Park Service during the public comment period through Nov. 23. A Nov. 2 letter from the chamber notes that almost 200,000 vehicles passed through the area in 2016 to visit the national park. A $70 fee could hurt local tourism, the letter states.

“We are concerned that a fee of this magnitude may be prohibitive to many tourists, and with fewer tourists come decreased revenue to our business community,” the letter states.

Craig Laird, president of the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance, echoed these concerns in a Nov. 1 letter to the Board of Supervisors urging members to send a resolution opposing the proposed fee increase. In addition, other proprietors whose businesses rely on tourism voiced similar concerns in correspondence provided by the county.