Pay to Play: The Debate over Access Fees on Public Land

The Access Fund has long represented the voice of climbers in debates over access fees to recreate on federal public land. Just last fall, word spread that the National Park Service was set to dramatically increase fees for the 2012 mountaineering season at both Denali and Rainier.

The parks announced their intention to raise mountaineering fees—from $30 to $50 at Mount Rainier and an unprecedented 150% increase at Denali, taking the price from $200 to $500. The intent to raise the fees was announced without an open public process to determine their need or an assessment of the mountaineering programs and budgets for either park.

Denali Ranger Station

Left unchecked, fee increases can set a dangerous precedence of federal agencies unfairly shifting more of the burden of the budget onto climbers, or using the increase to support services that were not required or wanted by climbers. We want to avoid a “pay to play” model where “playing” costs the agencies nothing, and climbers are priced out of their own national parks and recreation areas.

In the case of Denali and Rainier, the Access Fund teamed up with the American Alpine Club and the American Mountain Guides Association to protest the proposed unilateral fee increase and push the Park Service to open a public process to determine the validity. After many months of working with the parks, National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C., members of Congress, and concerned climbers, the NPS initiated a public input process, reconsidered its position and instituted fee increases that were significantly lower than originally proposed. The increase for Rainier landed at $43 (a $13 increase), and the fee increase for Denali landed at $350 (a $150 increase).

The Access Fund supports user fees on public lands in many situations, such as where services are provided or agency budgets are substantially burdened by climbing access. The excellent public education and search and rescue program in Denali National Park is one such example. However, the Access Fund will continue to push agencies to be transparent and include public input before making significant changes to recreation fee programs.

The Access Fund will also continue to actively oppose recreational use fees where administrative support is neither required nor desired by climbers and where climbing impacts do not significantly impose on agency budgets or degrade the environment.