Yosemite gate fee hike would only keep more away

April 08, 2007 11:00 pm

Soaring gas prices are already a strong reason not to visit Yosemite National Park.

Consider, too, the busy lives of more and more would-be visitors, road-blocking natural disasters near the park in recent years and the various forms of electronic entertainment that excite younger generations more than old-fashioned camping trips might.

So it should surprise no one that Yosemite's latest "park visitor user" statistics show that the number of people coming to see Half Dome, El Capitan, the venerable Awahnee Hotel or the park's breathtaking high country in person is plummeting. In 1996, close to 4.2 million people passed through the park's entrance gates. By last year, the visitor count was less then 3.4 million.

What should surprise many, though, is the proposition park leaders have that's almost sure to give people yet another excuse to stay away and push those visitor numbers down even further.

They want to raise the park entrance fee from $20 per car to $25 starting Jan.1, 2008.

The last time Yosemite entrance fees were boosted was a decade ago; they jumped from just $5 per car to $20.

One could argue that another much smaller fee hike seems fair, overdue even. Periodic price hikes, whether they are national park entrance fees or the tab on a loaf of bread, are often understandable and simply accepted.

But in Yosemite's case, the visitor count tallies should make — if not force — park leaders to do everything possible to draw people in. That includes leaving the entry fee as is.

Park spokesman Scott Gediman says he doesn't believe an extra $5 will make people cancel their Yosemite getaways. That's highly debatable, as reaction from the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau shows.

A fee increase right now "simply makes no sense," wrote bureau Executive Director Nanci Sikes in a letter the organization's directors unanimously authorized her to send to Yosemite National Park Superintendent Michael Tollefson. " ... An increase will only add to our declining number of visitors."

Several Mariposa and Madera county businesses that benefit from Yosemite traffic outside the park's southern gates have also sent opposition letters.

Hotels, motels, restaurants and many other businesses throughout the foothills count heavily on Yosemite visitors to stop in as they head to or from the neighboring national park. When the park visitor numbers drop, so does the income for these small businesses.

Gediman also reasons that other major national parks, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, already charge $25. The fee hike at Yosemite's gate will put the park in line with other attractions of equally stunning gandeur, he says.

An Internet check of gas prices drowns out that justification: A gallon of gas in Arizona, home of the Grand Canyon, this morning went for an average $2.68 a gallon. In Wyoming, home to most of Yellowstone, gas was selling for an average $2.61 a gallon.

If gas prices in California were anywhere near these prices, the Yosemite gate fee hike would be tolerable.

But the two stations on Yosemite's Wawona Road were charging $3.75 a gallon this morning. Prices elsewhere in the region ranged from $3.24 to $3.50 a gallon. No wonder the notion of a road trip to Yosemite has lost much of its charm.

The public has until April 16 to comment on the fee hike proposal. After evaluating the comments, Yosemite officials will make a fee recommendation to the National Park Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

They need to evaluate fuel prices too. A park entrance fee hike will be needed at some point. But for Yosemite leaders to assume that a mere $5 more is not too much to ask of anyone living or traveling in California is to assume too much.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller, City Editor Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.