Environment

Everglades Park fees to increase. Should boaters pay? Now’s your chance to weigh in

For the first time, Everglades National Park wants visitors who enter the park by water, including fishing guides’ customers, to pay an entrance fee online. The change is intended to make fees equitable among all visitors, park officials say.  Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald archive
For the first time, Everglades National Park wants visitors who enter the park by water, including fishing guides’ customers, to pay an entrance fee online. The change is intended to make fees equitable among all visitors, park officials say. Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald archive MIAMI HERALD Staff

Everglades National Park wants its entry fees to be more equitable, and that means charging every visitor no matter how they cross park borders.

The park, which has an $88 million maintenance and repair backlog, already plans to raise gate fees in January. But now for the first time, park officials also want to charge visitors arriving by water, including those ferried by fishing guides, and entering on the west coast where Hurricane Irma destroyed the visitor center last year. They also plan to hike fees again in January 2020.

A 30-day comment period to say yeah or nay on the proposal ends Aug. 31.

“The bottom line is everyone who recreates in the park needs to pay an entrance fee,” said park spokeswoman Denese Canedo, who explained that online ticketing means entry can be paid in advance. “So it doesn’t matter that there’s no ticketing booth.”

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Source: Everglades National Park

Entry fees, including $5 and $15 increases for weekly and yearly passes, were raised last year to begin whittling away at the massive backlog. But after Irma hit, additional changes were postponed to provide time for the public to comment on the plan, which would also eliminate boat-ramp fees. In January 2020, fees would increase again, bringing daily entrance, good for seven days, to $35 and annual passes to $70. Back-country permits would not change.

Over the last five years, Canedo said, fees have helped to repair back-country camp sites, install showers on Long Pine Key. and replace the boardwalk on the popular Anhinga and Shark Valley trails. Future fees will cover paving the main road and replace channel markers in Florida Bay and along the Gulf coast. Eighty percent of the money collected stays in the park, she said.

Increasing fees has always been a thorny matter, especially in a 1.5 million acre park whose aquatic borders can be difficult to enforce. When the park raised fees in 2014 for the first time in 17 years, South Florida’s two senior members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both opposed it.

This time around, the park wants fishing guides, who already pay a commercial-user fee, to ensure customers pay an additional fee if they enter park borders. For guides who often choose locations based on tide and weather, that can be a tricky proposition.

“It’s very difficult for us as guides to imagine that we’ll be in our boat fishing around Biscayne Bay or [Islamorada], have a rain cell coming so we’ll run down to Everglades, then have to stop to bother our customers, hope there’s a signal so they can get online and a have a credit card so they can pay to be in the park for maybe an hour,” said Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association.

Guides are still recovering from damage inflicted by Irma.

“We want to help the park, but we want the park to understand we’re struggling as it is,” he said.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a park-advocacy organization, supports the fee increases but believes the park can come up with a better plan for guides, said regional director John Adornato. Increased fees should also not replace federal funding being cut by the Trump administration.

“These fees can’t be used to overcome that shortfall that Congress and the president are responsible for providing,” he said.

For more information, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov. Comments may be emailed to Ever_Information@nps.gov. Include “Public Comments — Fees” in the subject line. Or they can be mailed to: Attn: Public Comments — Fees, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, FL 33034-8733.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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