700 percent increase coming in cost of senior passes to national parks

Story by VINCE DEVLIN
for Montana 55

If you are 62 or older and think you might ever visit a national park or two before you die, let us offer you some advice:

Get thee to a federal recreation site — be it a national park, national forest or Bureau of Land Management office — and buy a lifetime senior pass that gains you entrance to all federal lands that charge entrance fees, for as long as you live.

The cost of one will be increasing by 700 percent. To be clear, the current price — $10 for a lifetime of access to any and all national parks and federal lands — may be the best of all bargains available to America’s seniors.

For less than the price of a pizza, you can gain admittance to every national park, from Acadia to Yosemite, from Denali to the Everglades, and every Glacier and Yellowstone in between, at any time, for the rest of your life.

In all, the $10 pass gains seniors access to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas.

But in December, Congress raised the price of a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands senior pass to $80. The steep hike was a little-discussed provision of the National Parks Centennial Act, which received bipartisan support in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate when it was passed in December.

“Eighty dollars for a lifetime senior pass is still pretty reasonable,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson.

“Everybody else pays $80 a year” for an annual pass.

The $10 senior passes will be honored as long as the person it is issued to is alive. That’s why anyone 62 or older who doesn’t have one — and anyone who will turn 62 before the new price goes into effect — can still get in on the $10 deal.

Making it even better is the fact that, so long as the senior pass holder is in a vehicle, everyone else in the vehicle, no matter what their age, can enter on the same pass.

While published reports have predicted the $80 senior pass will begin later this year, or sometime in 2018, Olson said the National Park Service has not set a date for raising the price.

“We have administrative work to do before it can go into effect,” Olson said. “In any case, it’s not going to be $10 one day and $80 the next.”

NPS officials have said they recognize that $80 can still be a significant amount to people on fixed incomes, and are planning on offering an alternative that will allow seniors to, effectively, make payments of $20 a year for four years. That will be done by letting seniors buy single-year senior passes, good for entrance to all national parks and federal lands, for $20.

“Once they buy four in a row, they can turn them in for a lifetime pass,” Olson said.

At Glacier National Park, spokeswoman Lauren Alley said 14,264 of the $10 senior passes were sold during fiscal year 2016, which ran from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016. Another 391 have been sold during the current fiscal year.

There was a time the senior passes were free. In 1994, Congress established the $10 senior pass, and the price was never raised until the passage of the NPS Centennial Act just over a month ago.

The act creates more opportunities for investment in the country’s national parks, which face a backlog of $11.9 billion in deferred maintenance projects. It creates a National Park Foundation endowment, and a Centennial Challenge Fund to maximize private investment in the nation’s parks.

But it also hikes the senior pass from $10 to $80. No other fees in the National Parks and Recreational Lands Pass Series, also known as “America the Beautiful” passes, were raised.

Olson said the new fee is expected to generate approximately $35 million annually, and all the money will be used on deferred maintenance.

There are more than 2,000 federal recreation sites that charge entrance fees, and “America the Beautiful” passholders, including those with senior passes, can enter them all.

That includes national wildlife refuges like the National Bison Range, national recreation areas like Bighorn Canyon and national monuments like Pompey’s Pillar.

Of the 417 units overseen by the National Park Service, only 175 have any sort of fees, and just 126 have entrance fees, Olson said.

“By a long shot, entrance to most of the National Park System is free,” Olson said.

The six agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program and honor the senior passes at sites that charge entrance fees are the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands senior passes are available at many locations
throughout western Montana. They also can be purchased online or through the mail, although
that doubles the cost, to $20, to cover processing. Sites where the senior passes currently can be
purchased in person for $10:
Bigfork: Flathead National Forest, Swan Lake District
Darby: Bitterroot National Forest, Darby District
Eureka: Kootenai National Forest, Rexford District
Fortine: Kootenai National Forest, Fortine District
Hamilton: Bitterroot National Forest main office
Hungry Horse: Flathead National Forest, Hungry Horse and Glacier View District
Huson: Lolo National Forest Ninemile Station
Kalispell: Flathead National Forest main office; Tally Lake District
Libby: Kootenai National Forest main office; Libby District
Lincoln: Helena National Forest, Lincoln District
Missoula: Lolo National Forest main office; Bureau of Land Management Field Office
Moiese: National Bison Range
Philipsburg: Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Pintler District
Plains: Lolo National Forest Plains-Thompson Falls Station
Seeley Lake: Lolo National Forest Seeley Lake Station
Stevensville: Bitterroot National Forest, Stevensville District
Superior: Lolo National Forest Superior Station
Trout Creek: Kootenai National Forest, Cabinet District
Troy: Kootenai National Forest, Three Rivers District
West Glacier: Glacier National Park, park headquarters and West Entrance when it is staffed

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