This time next year tourism-driven businesses may be pinching pennies to afford access to the national park.
The National Park Service (NPS) plans to hike fees businesses pay to operate on park land and has hinted it will deny permits for organized recreational activity at Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP).
GNMP issued a notice last July stating Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) fees will increase over the next three years, starting Oct. 1, 2019. A CUA “allows an individual, group, company, or other for-profit entity to conduct commercial activities” on park land, according to nps.gov.
This includes businesses that offer tours on horseback, Segway, and bicycle, GNMP correspondence indicates. The change will not affect visitors who tour the park in private vehicles.
Businesses that make less than $250,000 annually from “park-based operations” will have to pay 1 percent of their gross income for a CUA every year, then 2 percent starting Oct. 1, 2020, followed by 3 percent as of Oct. 1, 2021, according to a letter signed by GNMP former Acting Superintendent Christopher Stein.
Businesses that make between $250,000 and $500,000 will pay 1.3 percent the first year, 2.6 percent the second year, and 4 percent the third year, according to the letter. Businesses earning more than $500,000 will pay 1.6 percent, 3.3 percent, then 5 percent, respectively. This is in addition to the $300 non-refundable application fee for the CUA.
While 1 to 5 percent may not sound like a lot, it can be a heavy burden for smaller businesses.
“Everybody is just astounded and worried about their business,” said Bob Velke, of Segway Tours and Rides of Gettysburg.
The majority of their tours are on park property, Velke said. He estimates he will have to pony up more than $30,000 per year when the new fees take effect. In order to compensate for the financial burden, Velke expects he will have to hire fewer staff members, who are all locals, and/or increase tour prices.
“The customers are not going to like it,” Velke said.
Having operated in Gettysburg for 12 years, Velke said Segway Tours has an immense respect for the hallowed ground that has become their office. Tour guides often pick up trash they find along the way and report maintenance issues to park staff, according to Velke.
“As responsible vendors who love the park, we realize that a modest increase in usage fees may be necessary in order to maintain the park and enforce its rules,” Velke said.
But Velke wishes the National Park Service would go about it another way. While Velke said he is prepared to pay his “fair share,” he believes the fees are too high and being rolled out too quickly.
“There hadn’t been any discussion. There hadn’t been any warning,” Velke said.
Commercial bus tour operators face a financial struggle, too.
The NPS stated in CUA-related correspondence that bus companies will have to pay $5 per passenger to the park, which is an entirely new policy.
Vice President of Destination Gettysburg Stacey Fox predicts this change to CUA fees will have the biggest impact on tourism.
More than 1,500 motor coaches come to GNMP every year, according to Fox. Many of those passengers are students embarking on field trips. Last November, 420 veterans and their guests toured the battlefield by bus during a trip organized by All Vets to Gettysburg.
Fox expects bus companies will offer fewer tours and/or raise prices to compensate.
GNMP is not entirely to blame for these changes, Fox said. The decision to increase CUA fees comes from the federal level, the Department of the Interior, but individual national parks decide how they want to implement the fees (over time versus all at once) and whether they want to increase fees to maximum or not. Fox said GNMP and the Eisenhower site are hiking fees to the max.
“This will impact our community as a trickle down,” Fox said. “It’s not just a tourism issue.”
Fox noted visitors don’t simply tour the battlefield and go home. They stay in local hotels, eat in restaurants and shop in stores.
Tourism is Adams County’s largest industry, standing at $691.2 million as of 2016, according to Fox.
GNMP correspondence indicates money collected from CUA fees will be used for operating the CUA program, “long-term monitoring and mitigation resource impacts,” and “other high priority park needs.”
After years of hosting 5Ks and, more recently, a marathon and half-marathon, Gettysburg park officials told the YWCA of Gettysburg and Adams County they will deny any future applications for a recreation permit.
The YWCA has organized the Spirit of Gettysburg 5K since 1991, which takes place on GNMP property, according to Executive Director Deb Geesey. In 2015, the Gettysburg Foundation approached the YW about starting a marathon to benefit the park and the YWCA, Geesey said. The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon was born the following year.
After the 2017 marathon, the YWCA received a letter dated March 6, 2018 from former Acting Superintendent Thomas Forsyth voicing concerns over the event’s respectfulness.
“As a result of the Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon, a number of people have expressed concerns about respectful commemoration within Gettysburg National Military Park,” the letter reads. “(GNMP) is considering ways to reduce the impacts of permitted recreational events, creating a less intrusive environment for park visitors during the events.”
The letter goes on to explain the reasons the park superintendent can deny permits for such activity. While the letter does not say race permits will be denied, it reads “…we are considering changes to areas where we will permit running and bicycling events” and suggests routes that are not on park property.
The permit for the 2018 marathon was denied but the YWCA successfully appealed. Geesey said she met with NPS Interim Superintendent Danny Smith in June. Smith instructed local park officials to approve the 2018 plans for a full and half marathon with the understanding that the park service may be more open to only a half in 2019. The YWCA was open to the change, Geesey said.
Then during an October 2018 marathon planning meeting, representatives from the YWCA and park service were present, according to Geesey. During a discussion regarding the 2019 race, a park employee said the YWCA’s permit for the half marathon and 28-year-old Spirit of Gettysburg will be denied next year.
“Everybody was dumbfounded,” Geesey said.
After each marathon, Geesey said the YWCA worked with the NPS to make changes to the event, such as relocating portable toilets. Volunteers picked up trash after the runners left, sometimes finding rubbish unrelated to the event, such as cigarettes and beer cans.
“We’ve done everything they asked us to do,” Geesey said. “I just don’t understand.”
Runners came as far as Georgia, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee to attend the marathon and Spirit 5K, according to a YWCA survey. Many of the participants cited local restaurants and hotels they visited during their stay.
Some of the runners Geesey met told her they wouldn’t have come to Gettysburg and visited the battlefield had it not been for the race.
“We’ve made the effort to make it as historically educational as we could,” Geesey said.
The Spirit 5K, half-marathon, and full marathon accounted for 15 percent of the YWCA’s fundraising and events budget for fiscal year 2017-2018, according to Geesey. The YWCA shares the proceeds of the half and full marathons with the Gettysburg Foundation, which serves to benefit the national park, Geesey said.
Despite the bleak outlook, Geesey said the YWCA will apply for permits and “see what happens.”
Geesey, Fox, and Velke each expressed concern over the ever-changing leadership at GNMP.
“At the end of the day, we don’t know who the decision makers are,” Fox said.
The park is currently on its fourth acting superintendent since May 2017.