CODY, WYO. — The experiences and memories gained from a trip to Yellowstone National Park my be priceless, but they don’t come without a cost. And that cost will go up next year under a proposal being presented this week by park leaders.
Yellowstone officials are meeting with residents in gateway communities this month as part of the public comment period on a proposal to restructure and raise the park’s entrance fees, as well as to establish a new permit fee for overnight backcountry camping.
Currently, visitors in a single, non-commercial vehicle entering either Grand Teton National Park or Yellowstone pay $25 for a 7-day pass valid at both parks. Under the newly proposed fee structure, Yellowstone visitors would pay $30 for a 3-day pass, or they could opt for a 7-day pass good at both parks for $50.
Under a separate but parallel proposal, Grand Teton National Park officials are planning a new entry fee of $30 for a 7-day pass good only for that park, or a 7-day pass good at both parks for $50.
The proposed fee hike got mixed reviews at a public meeting Tuesday evening in Cody, where about a dozen people asked questions and expressed their concerns.
One attendee noted that the current entrance fee averages out to just over $3.50 per day, and offers access to two parks. The proposed new fee averages out to $10 per day, and is good only for Yellowstone. That comes to a per-day fee hike of 180 percent, while eliminating access to Grand Teton.
“It is a significant increase,” said Acting Superintendent Steve Iobst, who added that Yellowstone has the option to phase in any approved fee increases.
For visitors looking to spend a week traveling between Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the cost will go from $25 to $50, said Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.
“I think people would be comfortable with a modest increase, but that seems excessive to me,” Balyo said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The fee hike will mean less money for visitors to spend in gateway towns, and separate fees for the two parks is likely to result in confusion, possibly leading to longer lines at entrance gates, Balyo said.
Iobst said the National Park Service would work with gateway towns on getting the word out about the new fee structure, and that limited traffic at the North Entrance early next year would provide some measure of how the new fees would affect wait times at entry gates opening in the spring.
The proposed fee hike seems steep when broken down by the day, but isn’t out of line compared to what a family of four on vacation might spend for meals or attractions, said Bill Tabacinski, a frequent park visitor from Cody who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Dinner for four at a mid-range restaurant could easily cost $35, for instance, while two adult tickets and two youth tickets to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody cost a total of $56.
“When you look at it that way, Yellowstone is a deal. It’s a steal,” said Tabacinski, who visits Yellowstone about six times per year. But Tabacinski said he pays only $10 for a senior citizen pass good on all federal public lands, a rate which won’t change under the proposal.
A $50 annual pass good for both parks would no longer be available under the new rate structure. Local residents or frequent visitors would instead most likely opt for an $80 annual pass good at all federal public lands. Fees for entrance on foot, by motorcycle or snowmobile will also increase.
Overnight campers in the backcountry currently pay no fee for a permit, although they can pay $25 to reserve a specific campsite. Under the new proposal, the advance reservation fee would remain $25. But backpackers over 9 years old would pay $3 each for a permit, up to a maximum of $15 per group. Stock groups would be charged $5 per person per night with no maximum fee limit.
Not all national parks charge for admission, but federal law allows parks to retain 80 percent of their entrance fees, while returning 20 percent to Washington, D.C. for use across the national park system. Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are among a group of about 10 of the largest and busiest national parks that will be allowed to charge up to $30 per vehicle under a new directive issued in recent months by Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.
The increased fees are expected to bring in an additional $3 million in annual revenue for Yellowstone. Entrance fees were last raised in 2006, going from $20 to $25 per private vehicle. The park has raised campground fees and fishing license fees in recent years as well, as annual federal funding for national parks has decreased each year since 2010.
Based on budget figures for fiscal year 2014 provided by the National Park Service, entrance fees from Yellowstone visitors totaled about $6.7 million, or just under 10 percent of the park’s $69.6 million annual budget.
Congressional appropriations accounted for 75 percent of Yellowstone’s revenue in 2014, with the remaining 15 percent coming from concessions and commercial operations fees, charitable donations and other sources.
Iobst said most Yellowstone visitors spend 3 days or less in the park, while Grand Teton visitors typically spend longer there, which is why the two parks have proposed separate entrance fees covering different durations.
Public comments on the proposed fee increase will be accepted through Dec. 5, and can be mailed to: Management Assistant Office, Attn: Entrance Fee Proposal, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY, 82190.
If you go…
The National Park Service will host a public meeting next week in Bozeman, Mont. to discussed proposed increases in Yellowstone National Park entrance fees. The meeting will be held at the Hilton Garden Inn from 6:30 – 8 p.m.