National Park Service extends comment period on fee increase proposal

The National Park Service has extended its comment period on a proposal to substantially increase the fees at 17 national parks, including Shenandoah National Park. Originally, the deadline for public comment on the proposals was set for Nov. 23. On Nov. 21, the park service extended the deadline to Dec. 22.

According to a news release from the National Park Service, the agency extended the deadline “to accommodate interest in this issue from members of Congress and the public.” Jeremy Barnum, a National Park Service spokesperson, added that the extended deadline was designed to ensure “that the public had the appropriate amount of time” to respond to the proposal.

“We also had some interest from members of Congress in extending the public comment period,” Barnum said.

The Park Service received over 65,000 comments for the proposal, the release states.

Under the proposal, it would cost $70 for a single vehicle to enter Shenandoah National Park for a visit during a five-month peak season, compared to the current cost of $25. The single-visit motorcycle fee would increase during that peak season to $50, up from $20, and the single-visit fee for pedestrians and bicyclists would increase to $30, up from $10.

Outside of the peak season, which will take place between June and October under the proposal, the National Park Service will also increase the single-visit pedestrian and bicycle fee to $12.

In addition, the National Park Service is set to increase the single-park annual pass fee at Shenandoah to $75, up from the current cost of $50. The National Park Service proposal does not change the $80 annual pass fee that covers visits to all parks within the national parks system.

In an October news release by the National Park Service, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was quoted as saying that the proposed fee increase would help the National Park Service reduce a backlog in the maintenance of its parks.

As of Sept. 30, 2016, the National Park Service had over $11.3 billion in deferred maintenance costs, according to a report from the park service. Around $75 million of that came from Shenandoah National Park.

“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” Zinke was quoted as saying. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations that they are visiting.”

But the proposed fee hike has come under fire from a number of lawmakers, including Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. In a joint letter to Zinke, the two senators stated that the proposal could prevent people from attending the national parks.

“These fee increases, many of which are two-to-three times that of current levels, could price out many of our constituents and other individuals and families across the country from visiting these national treasures,” their letter reads.

The senators stated in their letter that the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog should be addressed through legislation, pointing to the National Park Legacy Act, that Warner sponsored and Kaine co-sponsored. The bill would give the National Park Service millions of dollars each year to spend on maintenance at the parks.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, in a statement at the beginning of November, said that he would support fee increases aimed at addressing the maintenance backlog. But Goodlatte did not issue support for the proposal.

“I am carefully reviewing Secretary Zinke’s proposal and the impacts it will have on communities in the Sixth District,” Goodlatte’s statement reads. “While I support increasing entrance fees in an effort to help tackle the maintenance backlog, we need to make sure it is done in a common sense way that will not discourage visitors or harm local economies.”

On Monday, Beth Breeding, communications director for Goodlatte, stated that Goodlatte was continuing to follow the proposed fee increases.

“Congressman Goodlatte continues to follow developments regarding the proposed entrance fee increases for Shenandoah National Park,” Breeding stated in an email. “He has requested to meet with National Park Service officials in order to be briefed on the proposal and to share his views and concerns about the proposal and how it will impact Shenandoah National Park.”