In just about a month, it won’t cost a dime to enter the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
National Park Service officials announced last week that fees will no longer be taken at the park beginning on Friday, May 25, the first day of the Memorial Day weekend.
According to acting supt. Angela Wetz, a cost benefit analysis conducted in 2017 determined that it is not economically feasible to continue to collect fees in that it costs more to collect the fees than the program generates in revenue.
“It wasn’t making sense financially to continue the program,” Wetz said. “There are some new requirements administratively that would make the numbers even larger. We’ve definitely been losing money on the program and weren’t realizing the benefit.
“In the end we hope this results in better recreation opportunities for visitors.”
Bighorn Canyon averages approximately 250,000 visitors per year, Wetz said, and the majority of visitors are local and returning visitors. The Park Service has offered a variety of locations and means for visitors to pay their fees, she noted, adding, “During random road fee audits in the summer, we find that approximately 80 percent of visitors pay the fee.”
Park management has discussed since 2015 the viability of continuing to charge a fee given the complexity of access to the park and the high cost of administering the fee program, Wetz said. She noted that the cost to the park to administer the fee program has historically exceeded revenue collected.
The 2017 cost benefit analysis showed that Bighorn Canyon NRA spent $194,892 to collect fees but only brought in $95,538 during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2016 and ended Sept. 30, 2017, Wetz said, adding that the collection costs include staffing at the visitor centers and contact stations, collecting money from “iron rangers” (fee boxes) in the park and the cost of processing the fees and counting the money.
“Twice a week two to three people from my staff spend six hours counting the fees,” Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming said. “That’s 12 hours for our people that could have been used for a kayak program or doing community outreach.
“So it takes two days just to count the fees, not to mention gathering and depositing the money and reconciliation on the back side.”
The law enforcement and administrative divisions also play a roll in the fee process, Fleming noted.
She added that both of the electronic fee machines in the park, one at each end, broke down some time ago, and it would take $20,000 to replace them. Instead, the staff gutted the machines, Fleming said, and put in an Internet hot spot so visitors could pay their fee through pay.gov.
Fleming said the park considered several options including building actual fee stations like Yellowstone has, which would have the benefit of providing contact with visitors to provide information about the park, but stations would cost money for construction, maintenance and staffing.
“It wasn’t going to make a difference, since 80 percent of our visitors pay the fee already,” she noted.
Another option considered was increasing the fee from $5 per day to $15 per day as part of a Park Service initiative to standardize entrance fees throughout the system, Wetz said. Every park in the system has been placed in a tier group based on size, complexity of operations and visitation patterns. Bighorn Canyon is a Tier I park, hence the recommendation for a $15 daily fee.
But even with that increase, Fleming said, based on the current compliance level, the higher fee would not be financially sustainable, the Park Service estimated.
Fees at Bighorn Canyon have been collected since May of 1997, Fleming said, following a fee demonstration program authorized in 1996, with fees set at $5 for a day pass and $30 for an annual pass. Fees have been used to enhance the swimming beach area at Horseshoe Bend, improve campgrounds, work on historic ranches, design interpretive displays and improve visitor access at the Devil’s Canyon Overlook, among other projects, she said.
By generating less than $500,000 in revenue annually, Fleming said, the fees have stayed completely within Bighorn Canyon with 55 percent going to facility projects, 30 percent back into the fee program and the remainder to the natural resources division.
Though no longer collecting fees, she said, Bighorn Canyon will still be eligible to write funding proposals to the regional level, though the funding process is competitive.
“We have other funding sources we can use to complete projects,” she added.
Visitors should not see any decrease in facility maintenance or services, Fleming said, but may see more interpretive services and programs such as community outreach, kayak programs, ranch tours, guided hikes and campground programs.
“We’ll spend time developing and holding programs instead of counting money,” she said.
Visitors will still be able to obtain the Fourth Grade Pass, Military Pass and the Access Pass at Bighorn Canyon. All other passes will no longer be sold at the visitor centers.
The camping fee remains for the Horseshoe Bend and Trail Creek Campgrounds: $10 per night for undeveloped sites and $20 for sites with utilities.
For more information call Fleming at 548-5406.
By David Peck