As he took in the sights at Arches National Park’s Courthouse Towers, Yanni Loufas of Grass Valley, California, said the National Park Service's proposed peak-season fee increase is well worth it. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

If you’re a regular visitor to Arches National Park and you don’t already buy annual National Park Service passes each year, now’s a good time to get into the habit.

The National Park Service announced this week that it is proposing to charge a $70 entrance fee for non-pass holders at Arches, Canyonlands and 15 other national parks during a five-month peak season. In the event that the agency approves the fee hike, it would take effect on May 1, 2018, at the affected parks in Utah.

The agency is giving visitors and others just under 30 days to weigh in on the proposal, which would come on top of previous increases that the agency adopted in 2015 and 2016, following an extensive public review process.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose office oversees the National Park Service, said the proposed fees would help pay for improvements to the parks’ aging infrastructure.

“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 they are visiting,” Zinke said in a prepared statement.

Under the agency’s proposal, the peak season for each of the 17 parks – which also include Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon – would be defined as its busiest contiguous five-month period of visitation. In addition to the proposed fee of $70 per private, non-commercial vehicle, peak-season fees would increase to $50 per motorcycle, and $30 per person on bike or foot.

However, the cost of the annual America the Beautiful pass, which provides entrance to all federal lands – including national parks for a one-year period – would remain $80. A park-specific annual pass for any of the 17 parks would also be available for $75. (Entrance fees are not charged to visitors under 16 years of age, or holders of senior, military, access, volunteer or Every Kid in a Park (EKIP) passes.)

Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler said that she personally supports the proposed fee hike because it could increase funding for infrastructure projects and staff at Arches and Canyonlands.

“I think it’s a way for our parks to generate supplemental funds,” she said.

A fee increase, Gizler said, could also be a good alternative to a possible reservation-based entry system that officials at Arches have raised in the past.

“It still gives people a choice,” she said. “If they don’t want to pay the (higher) entrance fee, they can come during the off-season.”

La Sal resident David Greenwald voiced mixed feelings about the proposal.

“I feel like rate increases are inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing,” he said, citing the need for improvements to park infrastructure.

Still, Greenwald is concerned that many people would be unable to visit the parks if the increases follow the upward trajectory of ski lift ticket prices.

“That really scares me, that on our public lands, a lot of people would just be priced out,” he said.

Canadian visitor Chantal Smitheram of Ottawa, Ontario, said that she would be less likely to visit national parks in the U.S. if the proposal is adopted, noting that $70 translates to $100 Canadian.

“That would make me hesitate,” Smitheram said. “I think that’s a ridiculous price for someone who’s only going to be here for one or two days … It would leave a bad taste in your mouth as a tourist who’s only visiting for (a short time).”

Shane Eno of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, said the proposal seems to be excessive – especially considering that visitors can buy annual passes to all national parks for an extra $10.

“Although maybe that’s a sign that they’re underfunded, and if that’s the case, then the parks just need to be funded properly,” Eno said.

But that’s not to say that visitors should be left to pay for improvements to the parks, Eno said.

“I’d sure like to see it supported more by the government – by the feds – rather than on the backs of the users,” he said.

Visitor Wayne Forbes of Loveland, Colorado, questioned whether the park service simply wants to encourage visitors to buy annual passes.

“If it was just 10 bucks more, I would go for it,” he said.

Forbes bought his own annual pass several months ago, and he has used it to visit Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks in Colorado. He planned to make further use of the pass this week, with trips to Arches and Canyonlands.

Visitor Tim Bennett of Minford, Ohio, lives in a region where there are few national parks within easy driving distance, so he hasn’t invested in an annual park pass. He likely would, though, if it meant he’d only have to spend an extra $10 for a pass that’s good for an entire year.

“The other side of it is, I came all the way from Ohio,” he said. “If I can’t afford $70, I should have stayed home.”

The proposed increase wouldn’t deter Bennett from visiting national parks.

“But I wouldn’t do it every week,” he said.

As he took in the sights at Arches National Park’s Courthouse Towers, Grass Valley, California, resident Yanni Loufas said the increase is well worth it.

“They have done such a great job that I would pay it,” he said. “… We all know what it costs to have nice things today.”

The National Park Service says that if the proposal is implemented, estimates suggest that the peak-season price structure could increase national park revenue by $70 million per year. That’s a 34 percent increase over the $200 million collected in Fiscal Year 2016, according to the agency.

Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80 percent of an entrance fee remains in the park where it is collected. The other 20 percent is spent on projects in other national parks.

The proposed fee hike comes as President Donald J. Trump’s administration seeks a 13 percent cut to the National Park Service’s budget for the current federal fiscal year, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. If it’s enacted, the association says the cut would be the largest reduction to the agency’s budget since World War II.

In addition, the administration is seeking more than $30 million in cuts to deferred maintenance projects at national parks, and it wants to cut base operating funding for park units by $132 million, according to the association.

“We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places – protected for all Americans to experience – unaffordable for some families to visit,” National Parks Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno said. “The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.”

Annual passes to all national parks still available for $80

The public comment period on the peak-season entrance fee proposal will be open from Tuesday, Oct. 24, to Thursday, Nov. 23, on the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website at: Written comments can be sent to: 1849 C St., NW, Mail Stop: 2346, Washington, D.C. 20240.