Three years ago this month, returning to my hotel room in Flagstaff, Arizona, I wrote:
At least once in a lifetime every American should lay eyes on the Grand Canyon, whose brilliant colors and dazzling erosional landscape inspire a kind of planetary patriotism. Stretching 277 miles long and a mile deep, it is perhaps our nation's greatest natural treasure.
I went on to express sadness over a decision by the National Parks Service to raise admission from $25 per car to $30 - a five dollar hike! Our parks should be free, I argued, and Congress was being stingy by failing to pony up the relatively small sum needed to make that possible.
Which brings us to the recent announcement by the Interior Department that peak-season fees at our 17 most popular parks will jump to $70 per car, if the Trump Administration has its way. The cost to hike into one of the parks on foot would double to $30.
The new fees would raise about $70 million a year, according to government estimates. To help put that into perspective: Congress has allocated $120 million per year to provide security for Donald Trump's family.
Under a formula established by Congress, each national park retains 80 percent of its admission fees, and shares the balance with other parks that do not charge fees. But according to the National Parks Service, the sole reason for charging fees in the first place is that Congress won't allocate funds needed to maintain roads and essential infrastructure at the largest national parks.
In announcing the new visitor fees, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the additional money is needed for repairs to "help ensure that [parks] are protected and preserved in perpetuity." Zinke's misguided plan is to foist the higher fees on visitors during "peak season" - which is to say, when kids are out of school, their parents are able to vacation, and weather at the parks is at its best.
Under the proposal, new peak season entrance fees would be established at 17 locations. The NPS has the audacity to add, via its website, that the hikes are "part of its commitment to improve the visitor experience."
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has quietly proposed big cuts to the National Park Service budget.
What can you do? This is a rare case when public outcry might actually help. You can visit the NPS website at www.parkplanning.nps.gov and register a complaint. The window for comments closes Nov. 23.
"We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places, protected for all Americans to experience, unaffordable for some families," said Theresa Pierno, head of the National Parks Conservation Association.
To which I'd add: If Donald Trump prefers a country-club nation of haves and have-nots, this new gambit fits right in.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner called our national parks "the best idea we ever had." Doubling the price of visiting them is clearly one of the worst.