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Issue Of Climbing Fees At Denali National Park Raises Questions Of Fee Equity


How much of the cost of Denali National Park's climbing program should be shouldered by climbers? NPS photo.

Climbing at high elevations is a highly specialized sport, and the support network for those who aspire to summit Mount McKinley in Denali National Park is a million-dollar proposition. While park officials believe climbers should bear more of that cost, the climbing community is pushing back.

Last week representatives from national climbing organizations planned to meet with top Interior and Park Service officials to discuss a proposal to boost, beginning in 2012, the per-climber fee at Denali from $200 to possibly as much as $500 for those eying the summit of either McKinley or Mount Foraker.

“We agree that climbers ought to pay an appropriate fee," says Jason Keith, the policy director for the Access Fund, an organization that works to see access on federal lands doesn't get cut off to climbers. "What that is, is clearly up for debate because we’ve got a lot of disagreement with how Denali is characterizing the mountaineering program, first of all, and then secondly how they feel they ought to fund that program."

Denali's mountaineering program has evolved substantially since 1992, when 13 climbers died on McKinley, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous mountains in the world to summit due to the weather spun off from the Gulf of Alaska. In the aftermath, officials adopted a three-part strategy to heighten the safety of climbers: (1) a mandatory 60-day pre-registration; (2) enhanced preventative search and rescue education (PSAR), and; (3) a special-use fee to partially recover the costs of the program.

That third leg, the special-use fee, in 1995 was set at $150 per climber for those heading up either 20,320-foot McKinley or 17,400-foot Foraker. Part of that revenue was used to establish the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Basecamp, the 14,200-foot Ranger Camp, and the 17,000-foot High Camp for climbing rangers so they could be properly acclimated to the elevation and ready to respond to rescues or other assistance.

The revenues also enabled the park to create a "preventative search and rescue" -- PSAR -- program to educate climbers to the risks and hazards they might encounter on the mountains. The results of that approach were recognized in 2008, when a "study published in 2008 by the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology concluded that the Denali PSAR program had reduced the fatality rate by 53%."

Helicopters to reach those high elevations also are necessary for evacuations and to restock the climbing rangers' basecamps. And then there are the costs of training the rangers and removing human waste from the mountains.

Those programs are expensive, according to park officials, and the current fee structure for climbers does not come close to covering the bills.

That initial $150 per climber fee generated enough dollars to cover about 30 percent of the park's climbing program, according to Denali officials. While the fee increased to $200 per climber in 2005, the park has been spending way more than the revenues generated by the climbers. Currently those climbing fees cover just 17 percent of the costs of maintaining the mountaineering program, which for fiscal 2011 is estimated to run $1.1 million, according to Denali officials.

The park has received a total of $440,000 in base increases to fund the high altitude helicopter program and expects to collect $200,000 from the cost recovery mountaineering special use fee. This leaves $520,000 in direct operating costs that must be funded from either other park program funds, an increase in the user fee, or a combination of both.

Denali officials have been exploring three avenues to offset the imbalance:

* Require all climbers in Denali National Park and Preserve, not just those attempting McKinley and Foraker, to pay a climbing fee;

* Increase the Mountain Use Fee to cover more or all of the total cost of the program;

* Or implement an annual Consumer Price Index adjustment to the Mountain Use Fee.

At the Access Fund, Mr. Keith said park officials should look to other park visitors to help meet the difference, and they also should reevaluate how necessary all the elements of the current mountaineering program are.

"We’re more focused on the programmatic side, not on revenue generation, because you can fix the money problem and still have a sick program," he said from his Moab, Utah, office. "Or a bloated program, or an inappropriately designed program. So we want to make sure the program is what’s appropriate and find a way to fund it. We did propose a revenue solution through entrance fees, and we do think that’s appropriate, a real modest increase would address all their concerns."

In their comments (attached) to Denali officials, the Access Fund, the American Alpine Club, and the American Mountain Guides Association said higher park entrance fees for all visitors -- perhaps boosting the vehicle rate from $20 to $25, or the pedestrian fee from $10 to $12 -- wouldn't be unreasonable. After all, they noted, the park attracts "non-climbing visitors...who nonetheless appreciate Denali and its rich mountaineering history. The importance that Denali has for all park visitors is underscored by the mountaineering purpose that Congress mandated twice through legislation governing Denali National Park."

Spreading the cost of the park's mountaineering program to all park visitors, the groups continued, "is equitable given that most Denali National Park visitors greatly value Denali and are at least in part attracted to the park for its mountain and mountaineering tradition."

The groups also suggested that the park:

* Change the way it staffs the climbing program with "multiple high-paid GS-rated NPS staff for mountain patrols..." and seek a more diverse -- ie., less expensive -- staffing approach;

* Rely on more volunteers for the mountain patrols;

* "Reduce costs related to supplying the high-altitude camps and other efforts that support SAR (search and rescue) readiness. The park should reconsider the appropriate level of readiness required to be maintained by the NPS high on the mountain.

The park also needs to examine how it spends the revenues generated by climbers, said Mr. Keith.

"We feel that they are, first of all, unfairly charging the climbing program for costs that should be attributed to other users. ... That helicopter is used for more than just the mountaineering program. The cost of the Talkeetna Ranger Station, climbers have to pay the carpet cleaning fee for that, as an example," he said.

For their part, Denali officials note that they have reduced costs associated with the mountaineering program.

"In FY-10 the park was able to defray significant costs of the high-altitude helicopter contract component of the program by charging $112,000 to other programs such as the National SAR program. In addition, the park saved $85,000 by utilizing military aircraft to insert and extract the mountain camps," they note.

Since 2006, when they had a series of discussions with the climbing groups over the climbing fees, Denali officials note that "the park committed to doing a complete review and analysis of the mountaineering program. Subsequently, every aspect of the program was evaluated for need and cost efficiency. Changes made as a result of this review reduced the cost of the program in FY 10 by approximately $250,000."

Denali officials declined to discuss every point raised by the climbing groups in their comments regarding the proposed fee increase. Instead, they issued the following statement to the Traveler:

No other park is required to provide a specialized program that costs so much and serves so few (less than ½ of 1 percent) of the park’s visitors. The average cost to the park for these 1000 visitors is $1000/person. The average cost for all other park visitors is about $37/person.

There are a number of misconceptions on what costs are being charged to the mountaineering program. When calculating the cost of the mountaineering program, the NPS included only those costs that can be directly attributable to the program. Only the portions of permanent salaries, equipment costs, and Talkeetna Ranger Station expenses that directly support the mountain operation are included in the cost recovery program. The remainder of these costs are charged to other programs. The contract helicopter is base-funded, so its cost is not a part of the cost recovery

The NPS is currently analyzing all of the comments received during the public comment period. The NPS is incorporating the substantiative comments that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the mountaineering program and minimize costs to the NPS and to the climbers. As a result of conversations with the American Alpine Club, Access Fund, and guides during the past two years, the NPS has reduced the program costs by $325,000.

While members of the climbing community may support an increased entrance fee, members of the general public have not been supportive of paying additional money to provide funding for a program that they don’t participate in.

In the series of public meetings Denali officials held earlier this year to take public input on the climbing fees, one message from the park seemed to rise above all else, according to Mr. Keith.

"We were told point blank by Denali that none of this (mountaineering program) is discretionary," he said. "'We’re the experts, and we’re going to do this program. You need to help us figure out a way to pay for it.' That was the message loud and clear.

“We just said, 'Wait a minute. We’re not suggesting we ought to put anybody in danger, we’re not saying you should cut the helicopter contracts,'" Mr. Keith recalled. "'We’re saying that there ought to be an updated special use fee authority', and that’s what we’re going to be talking to the Park Service about. There ought to be a different way to design these extremely unique recreation programs that are really expensive.”

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Like everything in this country we, as a society, want to do anything we please and then expect everyone elso to pay the cost. It seems only fair to me that the actual climbers pay the expense of the service and I feel they should also be charged for any additional costs of a rescue they may require. Why should all other visitors be expected to pay for the fun of the few climbers. Take some responsibility for yourselves.

Removal of the Kahiltna, Ranger and High basecamps ought to cut the cost's substantially.

I agree with JT about the allocation of costs. The folks who benefit from the program should pay the cost of the program. Why would it be reasonable to charge 99.5% of the visitors an increased fee just to help .5% of the folks?

Perhaps another way to implement this would be to simply cancel the entire program. Require all climbers to have a SPOT device and anyone needing assistance would have to pay the real and actual costs of that assistance. Of course, whatever assistance a climber might require may have to come from Anchorage or maybe as far away as Seattle! Might take awhile.

One of the issues considered by the Park Service, here and in other parks, is this: once climbers/hikers have paid extra for their permit to support rescues, will they then tell themselves, "I paid my $500 and I'm too tired to walk out. So I'll fake an injury and call for help".

The day when the "brotherhood of the rope" demanded that climbers take care of their own seems to be past.

I don't think "fee equity" is really the issue here as the article title states. The problem really is increasing costs for visitors to access national parks generally. If the national parks are to remain shared places, where we all can connect with our natural and cultural heritage, they must be free or inexpensive to visit. We shouldn't be in a position where we are trying to cover all the costs of providing park access with user fees.

Denali does worse than what it proposes for climbers with the transportation fees it charges all the other visitors. The major visitor activity at Denali is traveling the park road to see wildlife and scenery. To travel beyond mile 15 of the park road, Denali mandates the use of its "visitor transportation system" buses or tours buses. This system is funded entirely by fees paid by the visitors themselves. Fees cover not only the actual cost of the system, but the concessionaire's profit and a portion of the NPS infrastructure too, via the concession franchise fee. The result? A typical day visitor to Denali pays not just the $10 entrance fee, but usually at least $31.50 for a no-frills trip to Eielson Visitor Center and back; a total of $41.50 for a day in the park, $73 for a couple. The entrance fee is good for 7 days, so any subsequent ventures would require only the additional $31.50 per person per ride.

My stats are a little old, but last I knew an average McKinley West Buttress expedition ran 17 days. A $500 climbing fee would put the required NPS cost at $29.50 or so per day in the park. True, climbers almost always need to hire an NPS-concession air taxi to fly them in, but it isn't technically required - a friend with a plane could land an expedition on a glacier for free, unlike the required cost with the bus system. From this perspective, the $500 climbing fee is not at all out of line. The bus rider and the climber are paying for different services, but both are essentially underwriting a good chunk of the NPS cost for their trip and at similar levels.

Really, accepting the assumption that required daily user fees for accessing a park should be $30+ per person per day is a mistake. The national parks are important for all to experience - these are the places that connect us an American people and help form our national identity. Rather than trying to shift fees to other visitors, we should be insisting together that the parks be made open and inexpensive to all.

So just curious, but what if I wanted to go climb another mountain in alaska outside of Denali. Would I have to pay the state of alaska any money to climb that mountain?? What does the state provide as far as SAR response for these other peaks?? It comes down to does the NPS really need to maintain a high level of response that outside of the federal government seems to get by with less??

I'll just echo what others have written. We've gotten so use to things being "free" or heavily subsidized. Paying what things actually cost is something all of us, including myself, will need to get used to. We can't just keep on letting someone else pay for things.


Very astute points!

While I am very much in favor of the cost recovery, some of the points made by DENA officials are not valid.

Mount Rainier National Park has between 8,000 and 10,000 climbers a year and a roughly 1.8 million visitors to which comes out to be 1/2 of 1 percent, give or take a few 1/10ths of a percent depending on the year.

So the argument that "No other park is required to provide a specialized program that costs so much and serves so few" doesn't really hold water. Granted, MORA's climbing program is far less expensive, simply because the mountain is smaller and the operation is subsequently less complex; $348,000 for FY2010, of which about $272,000 was base funded.

I detest the idea of charging for SAR. I believe it is a public service, like firefighting and law enforcement. Charging for SAR will discourage people from utilizing it and potentially lead to unnecessary deaths. The NPS as a whole should be encouraging people to go into the wilds, not standing their waving its finger and saying "have fun, but if things go wrong it's gonna cost you!" Is that the message land management agencies should be sending to the public? Of course, parks should be able to bill for wanton abuse of SAR infatructure. That WILL send the right message.

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