Rappahannock business owners breathe sigh of relief
The U.S. Department of Interior has “amended” its proposal to impose steep fee increases at Shenandoah National Park, an Interior spokesman tells this newspaper, which has business owners in Rappahannock County breathing a collective sigh of relief.
“During the public comment period the National Park Service received more than 109,000 comments on the original peak-season fee proposal. We’ve taken the public’s suggestions seriously and have amended the plan to reflect those,” the spokesman states.
An overwhelming majority — 98 percent — of the 109,000 public comments were sharply critical of the original plan, according to a review by the National Parks Conservation Association.
“I’m delighted the powers-to-be actually listened to all of the comments and letters that were received opposing the increase,” reacts Natalie Hathaway of her family-owned Beech Spring Gift Shop, just a short distance from Shenandoah Park’s border with Sperryville.
The Interior official declined to specify how the proposal would be amended. “The plan is still being reviewed and not yet finalized,” he says.
While it is not known how much fee increase there now could be, if any, amending the plan follows on the heels of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joining last month Senators Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, Angus King, Maine Independent, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, Oregon Democrat, plus a host of other lawmakers to introduce a bipartisan bill specifically to rebuild America’s National Parks.
The proposed bill would use up to $18 billion in revenue derived from energy produced on federal lands and waters to establish a special fund specifically for “National Park Restoration.” The bill follows the blueprint laid out in Secretary Zinke and President Trump’s budget proposal — the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund — that Trump alluded to in recent days during a trip to Ohio.
The Interior spokesman tells the News that Secretary Zinke “remains laser-focused on rebuilding our park infrastructure and this [amended] plan coupled with the bipartisan [funding] bill in Congress will provide a historic investment.”
For Shenandoah’s gateway communities — including Rappahannock County, given its close proximity to the park’s Thornton Gap and Front Royal entrance stations — the original plan to drastically raise the entrance fee to $70 per private vehicle could have had serious economic repercussions for tourist related businesses.
As outgoing Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Jim Northup told the Rappahannock News one year ago: “This park is a huge economic engine for the surrounding communities. We do a study each year of visitor spending associated with visitation and last year’s study indicated that those 1.3 million visitors spent about $87 million dollars in the park and in the surrounding communities — in Sperryville, in Little Washington, in Elkton, in Luray.”
“In 2017, over 190,000 people entered the park at Thornton Gap,” educates Theresa Wood, president of Businesses of Rappahannock. “To enter Thornton Gap from the east, a visitor traverses a good portion of Rappahannock County and we know that these visitors often frequent our local businesses — gas stations, restaurants, lodgings, wineries and breweries, just to name a few.”
The proposal to more than double the entrance fees to the nation’s 17 most popular national parks — from between $25 and $30 to $70 per car during peak season — was submitted last October by Zinke. He cited a $12 billion maintenance backlog for a park system that he said was overrun by record visitorship at a time of severe budget cuts.
The sharp increase, the secretary argued, “would generate badly needed revenue for improvements to the aging infrastructure [including] roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines, bathrooms, and other visitor services.”
But as one Shenandoah Park ranger opined to this newspaper last autumn, rather than helping fill the park system’s gaping budget hole the fee increase would drive visitors away.
“It’s too expensive for the locals, they won’t come up anymore,” the ranger said while on duty at Thornton Gap.
At Shenandoah, the plan specifically called for entrance fees to jump to $70 per private vehicle, $50 per motorcycle, and $30 per person on bike or foot. A park-specific annual pass for any of the 17 parks would be $75.
In comparison, to enter Shenandoah today costs $25 per private vehicle (which covers passengers for seven consecutive days beginning on the day of purchase), $20 per motorcycle, and $10 per bike or individual.
According to spokeswoman Sally Hurlbert, Shenandoah Park alone faces a $75 million backlog in maintenance projects.
By law, 80 percent of the money collected from entrance fees at Shenandoah is used for projects that directly benefit visitors. The remaining 20 percent goes to parks that do not charge fees to help them with visitor services.
“Shenandoah has used fees to hire temporary staff to improve trails and lead ranger programs, to rehabilitate historic structures, and to preserve the health of the forest,” the park states.
“We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today. Shoring up our parks’ aging infrastructure will do that,” Zinke said when he first introduced his proposal.
But the public didn’t buy in. And then the initial 30-day period to comment on the plan was extended from Nov. 23 to Dec. 22 after three Republican senators complained that park visitors and impacted local businesses should have more time to express concerns.
“Although we respect the National Park Service’s attempt to find solutions for the deferred maintenance backlog, raising entrance fees to this degree could unfairly burden the public and create new barriers to the visitors that you hope to reach and inspire,” wrote Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Steve Daines of Montana, and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
Cliff Miller Jr., who operates Headmaster’s Pub, the School House 9 Golf Course and the Inn at Mt. Vernon Farm, says the original fee increase would have had a “detrimental” impact on his cluster of Sperryville businesses. He says he was “pleased” to learn that the proposal is being amended.
Artist Patti Brennan of De’Danann Glassworks, who helped organize the Rappahannock County Artisan Trail — a network of local artists and businesses that work together to attract tourism as a means of economic development — says “by increasing the entrance fees to this costly rate of $70 we will no longer have a national park system for all the people.”
“Our nearby local park entrance is an important source of tourism traffic for our county,” she points out, and without amending the plan “I feel we will definitely see a decline in opportunity to capture those tourism dollars from tourists who will no longer come to the park because they can’t afford to. By raising the entrance fee it effects the local businesses surrounding the national parks in a very direct way.”
Allan Delmare of Rappahannock Cellars agrees that Shenandoah Park “offers an enormous amount of opportunity for all local businesses. And tourism to the park is an essential element of our annual business, whether it be from a wine dinner at the Skyline Resort; a casual fall vacationer interested in visiting our tasting room on their way to or from the park; or one of our regular customers from D.C. out to spend a weekend hiking and wine tasting.
“If fees double, it’s certain that the amount of visitors will decrease — by how much? Hard to say,” says Delmare. “But any decrease in traffic to the park would certainly have a detrimental ripple effect on not only our business, but the entire local economy.”