Yellowstone, Glacier, Little Bighorn Battlefield. It’s impossible to think of Montana without them. It’s also hard to imagine these sites not remaining accessible to all Montanans, or the damage to Montana’s economy if they are not. Yet, that access to these places is exactly what is at risk if the Nation Park Service’s exorbitant proposed entrance fee hike advances.

Luckily, elected officials including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester are rightly pointing out that “Americans already own these parks and they shouldn't have to empty their wallets to enjoy them.” We urge Senator Tester to continue his advocacy and defense of these treasures to ensure our access to them.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that this ill-considered and unreasonable fee increase is driven by the chronic underfunding of our national parks by Congress. Undoubtedly, the Park Service was driven to this desperate proposal due to this severe underfunding. Let’s look at the facts.

More than 5.6 million people visited national parks in Montana last year, bringing nearly $550 million into our economy while supporting 9,500 local jobs. Glacier again shattered attendance records. Yet in Yellowstone, roadwork alone accounts for $460 million of the National Park Service's $11.3 billion deferred maintenance backlog. Glacier needs over $148 million in repairs, including $90 million to repair the roads that visitors use daily to cross the park.

Our national parks are disintegrating because Congress simply doesn’t make funding them a priority. Over the last five years our national parks have seen a nearly 20 percent increase in visitation. At the same time, the Park Service has lost 11 percent of its staff due to underfunding. Bluntly put, our national parks are struggling with too few staff, maintenance backlogs and decreasing operation funds to meet the understandable demand to visit these storied places. But families should not be forced to pay for what Congress has failed to support.

The Park Service budget makes up just 1/14th of 1 percent of the federal budget. Operations cannot continue to effectively serve increasing public demand unless this changes. Our Montana congressional delegation must continue to protect our national parks and monuments and our access to them for their intrinsic value and for their important role in our state’s economy.

The Senate will soon offer its spending bill to fund parks and other environmental programs for the next fiscal year. The Senate Appropriations Committee decides how much money is allocated to various agencies including the Park Service. Tester is a member of the subcommittee that makes decisions on funding national parks, as well as forests and other needs important to our state. This is fortunate since he understands the importance of protecting these national treasures as well as their economic importance to our state.

Throughout his time in Congress, Tester has been a champion in supporting key programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In the past, this fund benefited Park Service lands such as Big Hole Battlefield and other public lands including the Crown of the Continent. Beyond Montana, supporting such programs has helped all of our national parks.

But our parks need more help.

We commend Senator Tester for his long-standing leadership on the Appropriations Committee and for speaking up for our national parks and monuments and our access to them and other public land. We count on his dedication and hard work to again ensure that the next federal budget includes the dollars needed to restore and protect our parks, allow access to them and keep them, and the Montana economy generated from them, secure.

George Corn of Hamilton is chair of the Northern Rockies Regional Council for National Parks Conservation Association; and former Ravalli County Attorney.

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