"Experimental" doubling of entrance fees at some national parks and forests - including most of those in Utah - may soon become permanent.
That's because surveys show the public supports them, visitation remains high despite higher prices, they are funding long-overdue repairs, and fees may even be reducing park crime.John Berry, assistant interior secretary for policy, management and budget, reported those findings Thursday to the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands.
He said if such trends continue, the experimental fees should be made permanent before they expire by law in 1999. Agreeing were groups ranging from commercial bus operators to environmental organizations - but they want some changes, too.
Even Subcommittee Chairman Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said making the fee program permanent may be a good idea.
"I believe that a recreational fee program is the most fair and realistic way to address the (maintenance and repair) backlog problems on the federal lands used by the American people," he said.
As an example of higher fees in Utah, entrance prices doubled at Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Zion national parks from $5 a car to $10. At Hovenweep National Monument, they went from free to $6 a car. At Natural Bridges National Monument, they went from $4 to $6 a car.
Also, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell) now charges $5 a car and $5 a boat - while no such fees existed until last year.
Berry said such hikes increased fee revenue by 57 percent last year in the National Park Service and 11 percent in the Bureau of Land Management. (Those agencies and the Forest Service were allowed to raise fees in 100 areas each as an experiment.)
The program requires keeping 80 percent of fees collected by individual parks for local use. He said an example of that is the BLM using money collected at Paria Canyon to "maintain and upgrade sanitation facilities at trailheads."
Berry also said, "83 percent of national park visitors surveyed said that they were either satisfied with the fees they paid or thought the fees were too low" - and said higher fees had "a negligible impact on visitation levels."
He said higher fees also appear to help decrease crime. Phillip H. Voorhees, with the environmentalist National Parks and Conservation Association, agreed - and used figures from Lake Powell as an example.
He said that at its Lone Rock Campground, "within one year assaults dropped by 71 percent, disorderly conduct violations dropped by 88 percent, quiet hours were enforced for the first time, littering decreased and family use of the campground increased."
But all groups called for some changes based on lessons learned - or for more experimentation with fee structures.
Commercial bus operators, for example, said they would rather be charged "per person" than "per bus," because buses are often half-empty - meaning "per bus" fees are often unfairly high.
Private boaters complained fees for them are often exorbitant. For example, they must pay a $100 application fee to float the Grand Canyon and $25 a year to remain on waiting lists. The average wait is now 18 years - meaning they pay $450 before an oar touches the water. Then they pay extra park entrance fees.
Interior Department officials said they also want individual parks to be able to save money for long-term projects instead of being forced to spend all money they raise every year.
Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Association called for more experimentation with "free days" to ensure access for even the poor; using different fees for peak and non-peak periods; and encouraging certain activities - such as ranger hikes - by offering fee discounts for attendance.