Brower: Economic impacts when the view isn’t ‘free’ anymore
It used to be that residents and business owners in Grand County could tout the free — or darn inexpensive — access to public lands in Grand County.
After all, about 75 percent of the county is publicly owned, mostly by federal entities that include the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service (Rocky Mountain National Park).
Having all this public land around us is a real asset. It’s good for tourism and it’s great for locals like me who love to hike, bike, ski and in general recreate on these public lands. These public lands are one of Grand County’s most unequivocal assets for all aspects of our economy, except, perhaps, for property-tax collecting governmental entities.
But this asset’s easy and inexpensive access is being continually challenged. This is not by land-grabbing developers or Cliven Bundy-types. It’s being challenged by the very agencies that own and operate them. The challenge? The ongoing attempt to collect more money from the public to gain access to and use these public lands.
The most recent threat comes in the form of a proposal by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to more than double gate entrance fees during peak seasons, going from $30 for a weekly vehicle pass to $70. Annual passes are also being eyed for increases, and could go from $60 to $70. Even more worrisome, the proposal would negate the current charge of $20 for a one-day vehicle pass at Rocky Mountain National Park during peak season. This means anyone attempting a one-day visit would be required to pay the $70 fee instead.
The rationale for these increases is to cover the estimated $12 billion needed by parks across the county for “deferred maintenance.” In other words, these increased fees would supposedly go toward making improvements in the parks and to help maintain them.
Who wouldn’t be for that until you consider that the Trump administration has also proposed a 12 percent cut, or about $1.5 billion, to the National Park Service budget. Which from where I sit suggests that Park users like me are being hit up with an increased fee (tax) to pay for what the federal government should be covering itself.
Add this to the fees charged now to enter and use the ANRA (Arapaho National Recreation Area) and fees charged for guides and others to use our public lands (which includes the Winter Park Ski Area) and it becomes clear that public lands aren’t free at all. They come with a cost, which when congress and the administration aren’t willing to pay with national funds, we humble users are expected to pay out of our hard-earned paychecks.
I feel the Park fee proposal would have a negative impact on tourist visitation at Rocky Mountain National Park and in the town of Grand Lake and the county in general. I feel that fewer people would come to visit the Park with such high fees and the ones that would will be inclined to spend less locally with such a hit to already tight vacation budgets.
Ironically, the proposal would hit Grand Lake especially hard since it targets precisely the only real tourist season we have — peak season. Ouch.
I think there’s a solution. Take the funding for just 88 of the new F-35 “stealth” fighter planes out of the defense budget and put it toward our national parks. At $135 million per plane, that would more than offset the $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance.
With that money in place there would be no need for exorbitant fee increases and my guess is the U.S. military would barely miss 88 planes out of the proposed new fleet of 2,443.
That way, maybe people in the middle class could continue to afford to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and spend money in Grand Lake and Grand County.
Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He offers free and confidential business management coaching to anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached by calling 970-531-0632 or at.
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