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Golden Recap: NPS Meeting on Denali Fees

Posted on: January 25th, 2011 by Erik Lambert

Still shot from Winner of the award for best short at the Definition 2006 Digital Media Festival, Heartbeats of Denali, written and directed by Patrick McCloskey. Photo Courtesy The Banff Centre

In 2009 the National Park Service announced that a significant climbing fee increase (from $200 to $500) could go into effect on Denali and Mt. Foraker as early as 2012. On Tuesday night at AAC headquarters in Golden, CO, the NPS hosted one of five open houses on this issue.  The purpose of Denali National Park’s “public involvement process” was to determine whether “the current mountaineering program is the most cost effective, efficient and safe program we can devise?”

About 25 community members and representatives from the AAC, Access Fund, and American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) were present for the two-part gathering. Denali’s South District Ranger John Leonard opened the night with a 30-minute presentation detailing the scope and cost of the mountaineering program in its current incarnation. The audience then engaged with Leonard, Chief Park Ranger Peter Armington and Assistant Superintendent Elwood Lynn in a three-hour discussion of the future program, what it would cost, and where shortfall funds might come from.

A synopsis of the evening’s discussion is detailed below. Formal, collective comments from the AAC, Access Fund, and AMGA that may guide those wishing to send input to the NPS before the public comment deadline: January 31, 2011, can be found on our Facebook Page. Or, use the Access Fund’s convenient letter writing tool. A similar tool can be used to comment on the proposed Rainier fee hike as well.

Find information on submitting comments in a November 2010 Inclined post, and futher fee information in Inclined stories from September and this month.

Comment letters should include, in concrete terms:

- what the climbing program should and should not include
- how should the park pay for that program

NPS Presentation

John Leonard detailed the components of Denali’s climbing program. Funds are expected to go toward the following:

- Resource management (garbage and human waste clean-up)
- Climber registration and education
- On-mountain staff
- Staff training
- Preventative search and rescue
- Helicopter program
- Medical facilities and staff
- On-mountain science/data collection
- Illegitimate guiding enforcement

The current program costs about $1.16 million per year, Peter Armington said. He explained that program funding comes from three places:

- Special Congressional appropriation for High Altitude Helicopter (approximately $440,000/year)
- Mountaineering use fees (currently $200/climber for Denali and Foraker; approximately $207,500/year)
- Concession franchise fees (commercial guide fees) and entrance/campground fees (remainder of “soft funds”)

The NPS employees stated that there is a $512,800 expected shortfall in the 2011 budget. Despite this figure, the following complications exist:

- Even though the park’s average cost per visitor is $37, Congress has mandated a $10 entrance fee. If this fee were raised, it could help cover current and future shortfalls.
- Given current infrastructure and staff, fixed costs account for about 80-85% of the Park’s budget, Armington said.
- Armington added that it is his opinion that the current staffing structure and infrastructure are ideal given the program’s mission (to keep park visitors safe, protect the mountain resource, and educate climbers, Leonard said). “I’m not prepared to change the [climbing program rescue and service] capacity without a change in our mission,” Armington said.
- If program costs were cut back further, the first thing to get cut would be climber registration, Armington said. This time-intensive program is the first filter in keeping inexperienced teams off the mountain.
- Using park soft funds for the climbing program without increasing revenue could result in the following potential closures: roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers.

To help in drafting comments, scroll through the National Park Service’s Powerpoint presentation (PDF) on the subject, including their budget numbers.

Audience Ideas

Suggestions for how to pay for the climbing program or how to save money included:

- Impose higher fees for foreign climbers
- Hunting-inspired deposit fee
- Mandatory rescue service/insurance for all climbers
- NPS/guiding concessionaire agreement to replace seasonal rangers
- Decrease NPS-provided amenities
- Disband climbing program entirely
- Cut “historic excesses” of the ranger program
- Raise entrance fees to levels consistent with other parks (Grand Teton National Park, for example, has a $25 entrance fee)
- More volunteer hours from climbers (10,000 hours/year already donated, Armington said)

Climbers also expressed concern about raising the fee from $200 to $500, as that proposed solution is not expected to eliminate the budget shortfall entirely. A $500 fee would discriminate against many climbers and, in fact, is likely to curb mountain use, decreasing the number of climbers paying special use fees that would support the climbing program.

Some mentioned that climbers are an “easy target” for increased fees because little approval is needed to increase an existing special-use fee, whereas more bureaucracy is required to increase or change other fee structures. Combined with the point in the above paragraph, some attendees brought up a concern about the long-term effect of “creeping” climber fees.

Some attendees reminded the rangers that climbers—despite being categorized as “special use” recreationists—are “a traditional and historic user group.”

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