To underline the complexity of the debate around public lands, think about two local issues.
Smith Rock is the first. Smith Rock is overcrowded, and many have proposed increasing fees and even capping the number of visitors as ways to control the populations—not always because they're concerned about the conservation of the area, but sometimes, because they're sick of sharing the area with the throngs of tourists who now flock to the place.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is the second. The occupation of the Malheur elicited two types of debate: One, that those lands are Our Lands, and that the users should not balk at paying fees to use them. On the other side, there was the perception that the federal government has too much authority, that We the People own the land, for which we should not be subject to excess fees to access.
These questions around public land use are centered around how to pay for the upkeep and conservation of the lands. However, another issue is how to ensure the land can be accessed equitably. The access and upkeep of our public lands is complicated by equity issues.
There is currently a proposal by the National Park Service—under the supervision of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke—to vastly increase fees at 17 of our nation's most iconic national parks during peak seasons, including Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks. At some parks, the fees could be as high as $70 per car. (FYI, Crater Lake, Oregon's only national park, was not on the list for proposed fee increases.)
The reason, NPS says, is that the national parks face an $11.3 billion maintenance backlog, and through increased fees, they'll be able to meet that backlog with about $70 million in increased fees. And yet, a bipartisan bill that would adequately fund the national parks, the National Park Service Legacy Act, sits in Congress as this increase moves forward. Further exacerbating the public lands problem, the president's proposed budget has additional cuts to the Interior Department.
The Secretary of the Interior wants you to believe that these lands are too expensive to maintain. We suspect he is trying put the public lands in private hands. It's the same argument used on those BLM lands that some people feel the "overreaching government" shouldn't be controlling. Somehow, they believe that lands privately held will still be available to them—and at a price they can control.
Our public lands were put in trust for the American people, not just to recreate on, but also to conserve them and preserve for future generations. That's where the bipartisan legislation should come in. That's a far more sustainable, and significant, funding option than exorbitant increases in fees which could prohibit some lower-income people from accessing those parks.
In an article published last month on the website, City Lab, researcher Lincoln Larson pointed out that when people visit parks and natural spaces, there are benefits beyond momentary enjoyment. "Greater recreation activity in parks leads to greater conservation behavior on the local scale and on larger scale," Larson said. To get people to care about nature, you have to put them in it. If not for any other reason but to foster future environmentalism, our public lands need to remain public—and not only that, but accessible to those from a variety of financial circumstances. We oppose these fee increases due to this unwarranted burden on those least able to pay increased fees.
This NPS fee increase is yet another move to privatize parks for private interests. We shouldn't let them.
Comment periods are one place to start making your opinion heard.
You have until Nov. 23 to tell the National Parks Service that you oppose fee increases at our most iconic national parks.
Here are some links: