A Line in the Sand with Seth Zaharias
On Tuesday, October 24th Interior Secretary Ryan Zink released a proposal to significantly increase entrance fees and special use fees at seventeen National Parks. While the fee increase proposal has widely been considered a slap in the face to both low income families and the working class businesses that rely on park visitation for their livelihoods, the Park Service says that it expects to raise $70 million-per-year as a result of the most recent proposal. On Tuesday, October 24th officials opened a 30-day public comment period that will end on November 27th. Meanwhile, the many small business owners that are located in the National Park’s gateway communities are fighting the fee increase proposal with modern methods. This week we sat down with the Seth Zaharias, the co-owner of Cliffhanger Guides in Joshua Tree, to discuss his thoughts on the proposed fee increase and how he plans to fight it.
“As a small business owner of Cliffhanger Guides, that Sabra and I own down here in Joshua Tree, I’m pretty freaked out about the proposed fee increases,” said Zaharias. “Essentially the average park tourist is looking at about a $70 park entrance fee [opposed to the current $25 entrance fee] and as a commercial outfitter, I’m looking at about $10,000 annually. As far as the average tourist that cycles through Joshua Tree; most of them can afford $70 but we’d definitely be keeping out some poor people for sure. And even for the people who can afford $70, this fee increase will take about $45 out of the spending money that those folks would have likely spent in the community of Joshua Tree during their vacation – that might be at a local restaurant or a gear shop or at a guide service like myself. From the perspective of a business owner; $10k per year is a pretty big hit. I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, but I can say with confidence that myself and my wife Sabra and our staff would have to all take some kind of a pay cut. It’s very important for us to pay our staff well – we pay them above the industry standards. I’m very interested in giving people raises so that they can afford sustainable living conditions here in Joshua Tree, but I’m not at all interested in giving them pay cuts because that’s lame. Nobody wants a pay cut. It’s just stupid.”
“As it currently sits Cliffhanger Guides is paying the Park Service just under $500 annually for a special use permit, and I personally feel that that is ridiculously low and I’ve actually been trying to give the Park Service more money for a long time,” said Zaharias. “But with the bureaucracy of the Park Service it’s not like we can just hand them more money. But Sabra and I have been offsetting that by supporting various non-profits that support the park, such as the Access Fund, Friends of Joshua Tree, the Hardware Anchor Replacement Program (HARP), and other community services like getting local kids climbing in the park. But this new proposal of $10,000 annually from Cliffhanger is absurd, but that is based on the fact that we are considered a Road Tour Operator, which actually makes me think that we might be able to beat this. In my meeting this morning with David Smith I actually proposed that we move to a percentage based system, and the National Park already has laws in place that allow land managers to bill us up to 3% of gross for the right to legally operate on public lands. I’m not crazy about the 3% but if we could compromise at 2% I’d feel really good about it. At current numbers we’d be giving the park about $2,500 annually, which for us is pretty big, but, if it’s going to help the park to function better than I’m all for it. Personally, I think that would be a very fair way to increase the cost of special use permits while simultaneously being manageable under our current budget.”
“It’s a big can of worms, especially in 24 days from now,” added Zaharias. “The Republican Party gave a 30-day period of public comment which is a really tight window, and it’s going to make some massive social networking connections to make this happen. The good news is that I’m probably the best networker you’ve ever met, and I’ve spent 25 years putting nothing but goodwill and love into the climbing community. On top of that, nine of the seventeen parks affected by the proposed increase has rock climbing within them, which means that I have connections at upper levels at nine of the communities surrounding those parks. Those are mostly people who own businesses in these communities. And in reality, it’s probably more like 25 communities because lots of these parks have more than one gateway community. In order for this to work, I need to get us all on the same page, and the way that I plan to do it is by massive social media outreach. I’m not asking people for money, I’m only asking for shares. The other way I plan to accomplish this is by trying to kill myself with an absurd amount of physical labor and sleeping five hours a night and making over 100 phone calls per-day. But this issue matters to me. Failure is not even an option for me. We will unite the seventeen National Parks and the communities surrounding them to beat this.”
Help Learn Voice Your Opinion
“If you want to help, you can go to NPS.gov and look in the upper-left-hand corner of the page where there is a tab that talks about comments and fee increases,” added Zaharias. “If you click on that there is a fact and information form as well as a form to fill out for public comment. I’d like to 500,000 signatures on this by November 27th. Is that possible? I’m not sure, but I think big, I dream big and I’ve got to do this. If you want to do me a favor or do yourself a favor; or if you want to do your grandchildren a favor, or if you want to do the low-income population of our country a favor, please go to the NPS.gov website and please submit a comment. Right now there are about 2,000 signatures and that just isn’t going to cut it…”