Here is a copy of a letter that I just received regarding the decision to raise the climbing fees for Mt Rainier. More information to follow when I have time. - David May:
March 14, 2011
Dear Friends of Mount Rainier:
Thank you for participating in the recent public involvement process regarding a proposed increase in Mount Rainier National Park’s climbing cost recovery fee. Your input, ideas and recommendations have greatly informed a carefully considered decision and will influence the direction of the park’s climbing program over the next several years. The climbing fee is the primary fund source for the public use management, climber services and environmental protection programs that sustain a world class climbing experience on Mount Rainier.
My decision is to implement a $13 increase in the cost of an annual climbing pass to $43, effective March 15, 2011. This is the minimum increase required to sustain core management programs and services. A new, annual Youth Climbing Pass, for climbers 24-years of age and younger, will be established at the current rate of $30. Moreover, we will seek to restrain future cost increases by incorporating recommendations and ideas provided by the public during the comment period.
Mount Rainier National Park has one of the most prominent and active mountaineering programs in the country. In 2010, 10,633 climbers attempted to summit the 14,411 foot peak.
The Mountaineering Cost Recovery Fee was instituted in 1995 and approved by Assistant Secretary, Fish and Wildlife and Parks, George Frampton, Jr., as meeting all criteria for a special park use fee due to the specialized nature of the services provided to less than 1% of the park’s visitors.
The 1995 climbing fees were established at $15 for a single trip or an annual climbing pass at $25. These fees supported – and still support - the safety, education, resource protection and human waste management services provided to the climbing public. Other park fund sources also support the park’s climbing program and services, notably annual base funds provided to the park by Congress, and guide concessioner franchise fees.
In 2002, the park proposed raising the climbing cost recovery fee to $30 for a single climb and $60 for an annual climbing permit to more fully cover the actual costs of program services. Following an extensive public engagement process and the analysis of comments, the park modified its proposal and instituted a “flat fee” of $30 for an annual (calendar year) pass. The $30 fee went into effect on May 1, 2003.
In October 2010, the park proposed an increase in the cost of an annual climbing pass from $30 to an amount ranging from $43 to $58. The fee increase is intended to offset the impacts of 8 years of unfunded cost increases and fund the essential services and programs that directly benefit climbers and the upper mountain. Services and programs include:
• Management of climbing activities to provide a world-class experience
• Registration of about 11,000 climbers each year, issuing and accounting for climbing passes
• Providing up-to-date climbing route and safety information
• Keeping weather, climbing, route, and climbing related information updated on a web blog
• Staffing two ranger stations (Paradise and White River) providing climber information, orientations and passes
• Staffing two high camps (Camp Muir and Camp Schurman) and briefing hundreds of climbers each evening during peak season
• Responding to dozens of climbing-related searches and rescues; providing emergency medical services
• Maintaining toilets at the high camps and hauling several thousands of pounds of human waste off the upper mountain to processing facilities
• Educating climbers about Leave No Trace practices and managing a “blue bag” program to keep human wastes off the climbing routes
• Monitoring the alpine wilderness areas for impacts related to visitor use and climate change
• Maintaining and operating high camp facilities and communication systems
• Providing climbing rangers with competencies in core skill areas, including mountaineering, search and rescue, emergency medical services, incident management, and aviation
• Operating a fee collection and point of sale system (credit card machines/iron rangers)
In 2009, the National Park Service (NPS) conducted an in-depth safety and operational review of the park’s climbing program following a serious accident involving a climbing ranger. The review analyzed risk factors and identified multiple findings linking program funding and employee safety. The conclusion: Inadequate program funding jeopardizes the safety of the climbing rangers and volunteers living and operating in a high-risk environment, and it impedes their ability to serve and protect the public and park resources. The approved fee increase will, in part, address these needs, and ensure essential services are available to the climbing public.
Public Involvement Process
The public comment period on the proposed fee increase opened on November 1, 2010 and closed on January 31, 2011. A planning process format was utilized to share information, engage the public and solicit comments. Staff produced an Executive Summary, a 10-page Frequently Asked Questions document and a 12-page Climbing Program Cost Analysis which were posted on park websites and widely distributed. The announcement of the climbing fee increase proposal, comment period, public meeting schedule, and publications were widely disseminated to local congressional offices, newspapers, climber blogs, advocacy organizations, and other media and individuals. A comment form was set up on the park’s website and an email address created for comments.
Three public meetings were initially scheduled and held:
• November 30: Tacoma Mountaineers, Tacoma, WA
• December 7: Seattle Mountaineers, Seattle, WA
• December 8: Mount Rainier National Park, Ashford, WA
In response to an individual request, a fourth meeting was held on February 2 at the Marmot Mountain Store in Bellevue.
An average of 10 people attended the first three meetings, with 22 people at the last public meeting in Bellevue. A broad demographic was usually represented at each meeting. Mountaineering groups, professional guides, rangers, independent climbers from broad income backgrounds, non-climbing public and mountain rescue groups all participated. The Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Planning and Compliance Specialist, and Climbing Program Manager participated in each public meeting. The format of the meetings included an introduction, followed by an informational PowerPoint presentation, and concluded with an open Q&A session. Comments and suggestions were captured on flip charts.
Analysis of Public Comments
In addition to comments recorded during the public meetings, 141 comments were received by email. Five letters were received, including one letter with the joint comments of the Access Fund, American Mountain Guides Association and American Alpine Club.
The analysis identified issues, concerns, recommendations and ideas. In general, for those commenters who favored a fee increase, support ranged from conditional support and reluctant acceptance, to clear support of fees increasing from the current rate of $30 for an annual pass to a range of $40 to $100, with most accepting the $43 proposal. Of those commenters who did not favor a fee increase, some were adamantly opposed and tended to be opposed to fees in general. A few were opposed to the NPS providing any services on the mountain, preferring a more “wilderness” experience. However, most who were opposed to an increase accepted the need for a climbing program and offered potential solutions to increase program efficiencies.
Issues and Concerns
A few issues were seen consistently in written responses and echoed at public meetings.
A perception exists that heavy summer day use by hikers to Camp Muir significantly impacts the climbing program and the cost of managing toilets and human waste at the high camp. Some suggested establishing a day use fee for people hiking to Camp Muir.
Many participants advocated increased use of franchise fees as a way of keeping the cost of the climbing pass from rising. The park nets approximately $350,000 in annual franchise fees from the three guide concessioners. NPS policy dictates that most of this funding be used to improve visitor facilities, and not for operations.
Generally Disagreed with Fees on Public Lands
Most commenters said they could afford the range of fees proposed, but some were opposed to any fees to access or use public lands.
Several of those who commented expressed concern about the potential to affect climbers who were less affluent, or to discourage families from climbing Mount Rainier.
Concern about the apparent unfairness of a climbing fee - many of those opposed to the fee increase and some conditionally supportive felt that the fee unfairly targeted climbers, and that other uses should be charged a fee, or that all fees should be eliminated.
Ideas and Suggestions
In general, most applauded the professionalism and quality of Mount Rainier’s climbing program, services and Rangers - even those opposed to a fee increase. Several people provided feedback and suggestions to improve program efficiency and cost effectiveness.
Long-term Sustainability/ Consumer Price Index: Most people understood increasing costs and supported a measure to keep pace with inflation, but an “automatic” increase tied to CPI or other metric was not completely embraced by the climbing organizations and some individuals.
Enhanced Services: Many of the Enhanced Services explained in the proposal were popular, but there was a mixed opinion if these services should cost more money. Internet service and automated systems were generally supported, and some thought it should bring efficiency rather than cost more.
Increase the use of volunteers.
Reduce the number and cost of paid staff.
Create efficiencies through Internet services, online registration, information blogs, etc.
Utilize the concessioner guides for some services performed by Rangers.
Add more base operations funding to the program.
Increase or implement new fees for other park users - entrance, backcountry and day use fees.
Provide a reduced pass fee for lower income, younger or college aged climbers.
In response to public comments, concerns and suggestions, the following modifications to Mount Rainier’s Climbing Cost Recovery fee program will also be implemented:
• Add a new “youth” climbing pass for visitors 24-years old and younger. The annual youth climbing pass fee would remain at $30. This demographic is estimated at 5-10% of the total climber volume. This recommendation supports NPS and Department of the Interior youth initiatives, and responds to public concerns about the potential impact of fee increases on young and less affluent climbers, students, and families.
• Adjust the fee periodically based on actual costs, not to exceed cumulative consumer price index for the time period between fee increases. Cost efficiencies will be employed to minimize fee increases, and fees will not be automatically adjusted each year. Any proposed increase in climber fees that exceeds cumulative CPI would require a new fee proposal and public engagement process.
• Increase the franchise fee allocation to the climbing program from $19,000 to $71,000. This program change is being implemented this year, and addresses a recurrent theme brought up by climbers: increase franchise fee contributions to the climbing program. Additionally, up to $1M in franchise fees may be needed over a 3 – 5 year period to improve climber facilities at Camp Muir following completion of a Development Concept Plan.
• Increase the use of volunteers, local mountaineering search and rescue organizations, and guides in the climbing program as appropriate.
My staff and I appreciated the input and active participation of Mount Rainier National Park visitors, climbers, guide services, rescue and climber advocacy organizations throughout this process. Your enthusiastic participation indicates the level of interest and commitment you have to the park and the resource. We have learned much, and continue to look forward to working with the public to implement the program changes. It is my goal to ensure that Mount Rainier National Park continues to provide a world-class climbing experience that is managed at an appropriate level consistent with the purpose of the park, which is to:
“…conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for future generations” (NPS Organic Act, 1916, 16 USC 1).
If you have questions or want to continue to know about the program, please call Stefan Lofgren, Climbing Program Manager at 360-569-2211 ext. 6010. You may also contact the Superintendent’s Office at 360-569-2211 ext. 2301. Again, thank you for your interest in Mount Rainier National Park’s Climbing Program.
David V. Uberuaga