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Thumbs up to park fees

Parks are vital Hawaii assets. Keeping them in good shape requires a dependable investment of assets as well, even with a shrinking state budget. The "Recreational Renaissance," the Lingle administration’s effort to tap park users for maintenance funds, was put in place last year with that reality in mind.

The rules enabling the state to charge for admission and parking are in place, but the state Board of Land and Natural Resources will decide today whether to approve the proposed fee amounts for select, high-traffic parks throughout the islands.

Judging by the experience at two parks that served as test sites, the land board should give the thumbs-up. The fees are reasonable, are unlikely to discourage park use and provide a needed source of support for recreation areas around the state.

Fees have been charged at Diamond Head State Park for years, and visitors and local residents continue to flock there undeterred, said Curt Cottrell, assistant administrator for the State Parks Division.

And the money raised this way? That’s not bad, either. In the past fiscal year alone, Diamond Head fees brought in nearly $673,000, Cottrell said.

Since March the state began charging a $3-per-car fee for all visitors to the Pali Lookout, later introducing an alternative, $1 per-person fee for individuals who come in taxis and a $6-$24 range for vans and buses. So far, the fee plan has drummed up more than $26,000 in new revenue for the state, Cottrell said, even after the vendor, Diamond Parking, took its 30 percent share.

Anecdotal evidence uncovers a side benefit: The presence of parking attendants has put a damper on thefts from parked cars, a real problem in many parks. And the best news: None of this costs the taxpayers.

"We have to run it kind of like a business, because we need the money, and it’s not coming from the Legislature," Cottrell said.

Now the state land board should build on this successful experiment by authorizing similar fee scales at high-use parks on other islands: Haena and Kokee on Kauai, Akaka Falls and Hapuna on the Big Island, and Iao Valley and Makena on Maui. The proposed rates there are slightly higher because, unlike the Pali where visits are brief, park users generally stay longer.

These are the locations with the greatest potential to create a fund capable of subsidizing maintenance at other parks that have little capacity to drive revenue but still have costs, such as Makapuu Lighthouse.

One cautionary note: There is a balance to be struck here between revenue production and enjoyment and access to a park. It defeats the purpose of parks maintenance and improvement if the entire experience of the natural resource dims beneath the glare of excessive commercialization. Vendor opportunities should be limited and unobtrusive.

Hawaii has been behind the curve of national practices, in which reasonable usage fees are commonplace. It’s time for this state to tap users at its most popular parks to pay their fair share so that these public assets can be enjoyed for years to come.


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