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Bighorn sheep

A bighorn sheep makes his way through the snow on a rocky hillside in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park.

Driving through a Yellowstone National Park gate will cost $5 more this summer. Visitors may find the price hike more acceptable knowing that most of their entrance fee is used to sustain the park they love.

Every national park that charges an entrance fee will raise it by $5 per carload starting June 1. Seven-day admission to Yellowstone National Park will go up to $35, which is just half of the $70 fee Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke floated back in October.

The idea of raising fees by $40 per car at Yellowstone, Glacier and 15 other popular parks sparked outrage from the public and private businesses that cater to park visitors. When the Department of Interior sought comments, it got an earful. Ninety-eight percent of 110,000 comments opposed the $70 entrance fee, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Zinke apparently listened to the public outrage and softened the price increase in an announcement Thursday.

“Fees do have a role to play in our parks, and the administration’s move to abandon its original proposal in favor or more measured fee increases will put additional funds into enhancing park experiences without threatening visitation or local economies,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association.

Pierno noted that the budget adopted in March included more funding for national parks and park repairs for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Originally, the Trump administration proposed a 2018 budget that cut NPS deferred maintenance.

NPCA has been lobbying for the National Park Service Legacy Act to encourage sustainable investment in the parks.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have proposed funding parks with revenue from increased energy development on public lands.

The NPS has a maintenance backlog totaling $11.6 billion. The agency estimated that the $5 fee increase will add $60 million to the $200 million collected last year. The park that collects the fee keeps 80 percent and the rest is remitted to the NPS for distribution to other parks. The proposed $70 fee on 17 parks during their busiest months was projected to raise $70 million annually.

Even the $70 fee wouldn’t have eliminated the $11 billion maintenance backlog in the lifetime of anyone reading this editorial. Proper maintenance has been deferred for many years, and it would take an investment of $1 billion annually for more than a decade to catch up. The backlog grows every year as roads, bridges and other structures wear out along trails, in campgrounds at boat docks and other visitor facilities.

A small price increase to cover increasing costs of operating our parks is acceptable and desirable so long as the revenue actually stays in the parks where collected to provide and improve the visitor experience. In Yellowstone that includes patching and resurfacing roads that are constantly deteriorating under the effects of heavy summer traffic, harsh winter weather and the ever-changing, underground thermal activity.

Yellowstone has seen a 40-percent increase in visitors in the past nine years, but hasn’t received a commensurate increase in its operating or capital budgets.

Without a strong, long-term funding commitment from Congress, America’s national parks are in danger of being loved to death.

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