Comment on Park Entrance Fee Increase Proposed by the Department of Interior

Friends of Acadia would like to thank the National Park Service for the opportunity to comment on the proposal to increase the entrance fees at Acadia National Park and 16 other national parks during peak season. Friends of Acadia is a non-profit organization that supports Acadia National Park through fundraising and grants, as well as volunteer work, advocacy, and cooperative programs such as youth internships and public transit through the park and surrounding communities. Since the organization’s founding in 1986, we have contributed more than $25.6 million to the park and partner organizations.

Friends of Acadia recognizes the importance of addressing the deferred maintenance backlog, estimated at $11.3 billion across the National Park System and $71 million at Acadia. However, we are concerned about the magnitude of the fee increase proposed and that it may serve as a deterrent for the average citizen to visit Acadia. We also have questions about how the fee increase could impact the local tourism economy, how the National Park Service will be able to take on additional projects in an era of declining operational funding, and the relationship of the fee increase to federal appropriations and Acadia’s transportation fee, which is currently part of the entrance pass.

There is no question that our national parks, including Acadia, need more financial support at this time of growing interest and expectations. The key is finding the right balance of revenue sources to address those needs, especially the deferred maintenance backlog. Friends of Acadia supports a broader approach to confronting the backlog rather than asking visitors, many of whom as taxpayers already pay for park operations, to shoulder the burden of generating additional revenues for deferred maintenance. We think it will take innovative legislation, better federal appropriations, National Park Service policy changes, partnership contributions, volunteer support, and smaller fee increases to fully address the deferred maintenance backlog.

Innovative Legislation
Friends of Acadia supports legislation to increase funding to address the deferred maintenance backlog. The National Park Service Centennial Act, passed in the 114th Congress, established a national challenge fund to encourage public/private investments to address the deferred maintenance backlog. Friends of Acadia has helped Acadia successfully compete for these funds and complete projects on three hiking trails, as well as rehabilitate vistas and drainage systems on the carriage roads. In the 115th Congress, the National Park Service Legacy Act (S.751 and H.R. 2584), supported by Maine’s senators, would establish a new dedicated source of funding from unallocated offshore oil revenues for high priority deferred maintenance projects. We believe the Legacy Act (currently under consideration) and the Centennial Act (previously enacted) are good bills that will generate important funding for the backlog.

Federal Appropriations
Years of chronic underfunding by Congress created the deferred maintenance backlog in our national parks. Even if the proposed fee increases were implemented in 2018, the projected $70 million increase in revenues would be eliminated by the proposed $93 million cuts to the maintenance funding for the National Park Service proposed by the current Administration in the FY 2018 budget. It is counterintuitive for a fee increase to be suggested at the same time that both the operations and the maintenance budgets are being slashed. Friends of Acadia supports increasing appropriations for National Park Service maintenance projects as well as operational funding to ensure that NPS employees are able to keep park facilities in good shape once they have been fixed.

National Park Service Policy Changes
Friends of Acadia supports innovation within the national parks regarding fee programs. Acadia National Park and community partners have been working to raise awareness and support in the surrounding communities of the importance of purchasing entrance passes. The park put up new signage and increased the number of community outlets (including L.L.Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine) authorized to sell park entrance passes. Additionally, Acadia National Park served as a pilot location for on-line park entrance pass sales, and the program has been quite successful by making it easier for visitors to purchase their park entrance passes before setting out for the park. Annual surveys on the Island Explorer bus system, which runs through the park, demonstrate that the educational messages alone have increased fee compliance by 11% since 2005.  Friends of Acadia is concerned that the sudden and steep nature of the proposed fee increase could serve to undermine much of the goodwill and collaboration that has been growing steadily in recent years around the controversial topic of fees.

Rather than implementing a steep increase in fees over a five-month season, perhaps the National Park Service should experiment with congestion pricing or shorter-period (e.g. 2-day or 3-day) entrance passes as alternatives that give visitors options. Congestion pricing and parking reservation systems would guarantee space at popular destinations during the most popular times of day. A less expensive 3-day entrance pass might retain interest from Maine residents, whom we hear anecdotally from local hoteliers and innkeepers, make spur-of-the-moment decisions to come to Acadia based on the weekend weather. The fees proposed for Acadia are high in comparison to other natural destinations in the state, such as Baxter State Park, which charges $40/vehicle for the entire season or $15/vehicle for a day, and might serve as a disincentive for Maine residents to enjoy Acadia. Experiments, such as congestion pricing or shorter entrance passes, along with visitor surveys might give the National Park Service more information about the best way to use fees as a tool to generate income for the deferred maintenance backlog, while not creating disincentives for Maine residents to visit.

Friends of Acadia would also support policy changes allowing the National Park Service greater latitude to hire permanent or subject-to-furlough project managers and contract officers using fee money. We support that parks are able to retain 80% of the fees that they generate from entrance pass sales on-site; park visitors like knowing that they are giving back to the place they are visiting. However, the steep fee increase proposed for Acadia and the other parks listed could generate more funding for park maintenance projects than the park is able to manage with existing staff. Much of the maintenance work is completed through contracts, but given that annual operating appropriations have been static or decreasing, it would be beneficial if the park could use fee money to hire permanent or subject-to-furlough project managers and contract officers to ensure that contract work is being completed efficiently and to the high standards park visitors expect.

Friends of Acadia would also support extending the time-frame within which fee money must be obligated or expended. The majority of Acadia National Park’s entrance fees are collected in late summer or early fall, making it difficult for the park to achieve targeted spend-down rates by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Friends of Acadia supports extending the time-frame for obligation/expenditure, perhaps by a year, to enable the National Park Service to more effectively plan for projects and expend funds during Maine’s short construction season.

Partnership Contributions and Volunteer Support
Friends of Acadia looks forward to being part of the solution in addressing the deferred maintenance backlog. We hold endowments and make annual grants to the park for to the maintenance of Acadia’s trails and carriage roads ($410K for trails and $252K for carriage roads in 2016).  We support the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, a team of 16 high-school aged students who work with park staff on maintenance projects, and we hire two seasonal stewardship crew leaders to guide almost 3,000 volunteers who contribute almost 13,000 hours of service annually to maintain the trails and carriage roads. Acadia’s historic trails and carriage roads are in relatively good shape compared to other park facilities because of these contributions.

Smaller Fee Increases
Finally, Friends of Acadia has previously supported fee increases at Acadia National Park and would likely support another fee increase, as long as it was modest and justified. The fee increases at Acadia in 2015 were relatively small ($5 increase to the weekly pass, and $10 for the annual pass) and have been very helpful in addressing maintenance and transportation projects in the park. Friends of Acadia also just supported the increase to the senior pass in 2016, which was more dramatic, but created greater opportunities for public/private matching programs to address the maintenance backlog. Friends of Acadia would likely support additional modest fee increases and/or options for different types of park passes here at Acadia.

Friends of Acadia is concerned about the magnitude and quick implementation of the fee increases proposed here at Acadia National Park. Acadia National Park’s 3.3 million visitors in 2016 spent more than $274 million in the local economy, supporting 4,195 jobs, and more than $111 million in labor income and $188 million in value-added economic activity. Friends of Acadia is concerned that if the fees are increased dramatically at the park, it will serve as a disincentive for travelers to choose Acadia, thereby having a negative impact on the local economy.

Additionally, Friends of Acadia believes that raising the fees at Acadia National Park could have a disproportionate effect on Maine residents and day-users of the park who have lower incomes than the national average. The U.S. Census reports that Maine’s median household income in 2015 was $49,331 or 9% less than the national median income of $53,889. The median household income in 2015 for Hancock County, in which most of Acadia is located, was $47,030 or 14.5% less than national median income. Local residents and those from Maine may be less likely to visit Acadia, the national treasure in their backyard if the price from May through October is almost tripled.

Friends of Acadia recognizes the importance of generating more funds to address the deferred maintenance backlog, and we will continue to partner with the National Park Service to help reduce it. However, we recommend a multi-pronged approach to the issue that relies upon innovative legislation, strong federal appropriations, policy changes, partner support, volunteerism, and smaller fee increases. The steep fee increase proposed for Acadia and 16 other national parks beginning in 2018 should be reduced in scale and combined with other solutions to address the backlog.