Everglades National Park Plans to Hike Entrance Fees to Pay for Maintenance

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Your next bike ride in Shark Valley, kayaking adventure through the mangroves, or overnight camping trip in Flamingo might cost a bit more, thanks in large part to the Trump administration's huge budget cuts to national parks.

In response, Everglades National Park plans to raise its entrance fees beginning in January 2018 to pay for $88 million in overdue maintenance work. Walk-in, paddle-in, and bike-in visitors would pay $12 instead of $8, while annual memberships would rise from $40 to $50. The rates would rise again in October 2018 to $15 and $60, respectively.

Camping rates could also increase. Beginning later this year, campgrounds will be operated by a private company, so it's not settled yet how costs will change. (A few rates would drop under the proposal, including including motorboat and canoe launch charges.)

Visitors aren't the only ones being targeted by price hikes. Commercial-use permits would also quadruple under the proposal. Mary Burnham and her husband have run fully operated kayak camping tours in the Everglades since 2010. They've always paid $250 a year to run Burnham Guides in the park. The minimum would grow to $1,000, which they say is 6 percent of their gross proceeds.

"That's a lot of money compared to what we make," Mary says. "We're going to have to come up with it somehow."

To offset the rate hikes, small businesses such as Burnham Guides will have to raise prices in order to afford the permit. But for tours booked in advance for next winter, the damage will already have been done.

"We need more time," Mary says. "We can’t very well tell people, 'Oh, no, it's going to be more...' It's all booked ahead."

The National Park Service (NPS) says the root problem is underfunding from Congress, which has led to park staff shortages for years. Now the Trump administration is proposing a 13 percent cut to NPS, which would be the largest budget loss since World War II.

Many Everglades regulars say they support the fee raises if it means the park will be better protected and maintained. Evan Wexler, a 26-year-old schoolteacher and Biscayne National Park volunteer, first visited the Everglades with his family when he was 4. Now there are months when he visits every weekend.

"It's my way to destress after a long week," Wexler says. "It's my version of therapy."

He doesn't think the rate hikes will dissuade active Everglades enthusiasts like himself or ecotourists who have traveled from all parts of the country to visit the park. The fee increase doesn't seem significant enough to have an immense impact on the number of visitors the Everglades will receive in a given year.

"I support the fee raises because the parks aren’t funded by the federal government as much as they should be," Wexler says. "I think it's a shame that the fee has to be raised because of that."

Wexler places most of the blame on the Trump administration for proposing such a huge cut to park budgets. "If you're actually making America great again," he says, "then give money to the parks and fund them properly."

The public still has a chance to protest the changes. The parks are accepting comments and suggestions about the fee program by email or mail through September 15.

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