As visitation at Utah’s bevy of state parks continues to climb, crowds are taking their toll.

Entrance fees pay for the operational costs of the 46 state parks, but any infrastructure repairs or upgrades come from Utah taxpayer dollars.

That is where the issue of out-of-state visitors becomes a sticking point, as recently discussed by members of the legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment interim committee.

Utah State Parks Deputy Director Scott Strong said Sand Hollow State Park received over 1 million visitors in the last year, and Gunlock State Park has been overwhelmed as it has enjoyed enough water to feed its stunning waterfalls.

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Strong said the division is pursuing the elimination of the annual state park visitation pass for non-state residents and looking at other options to bump fees for its parks. Some parks already charge extra — such as $5 more for Sand Hollow — and additional fees of 15% for the state park golf courses like Soldier Hollow and Wasatch Mountain for non-state visitors.

As a comparison in terms of equity, Strong pointed to tuition and other examples in a preliminary analysis.

“The first thing I looked at was in-state versus out-of-state tuition and found that for out-of-state residents, it costs about three times as much to come and pay tuition in the state of Utah. Hunting and fishing permits are about three times as costly for out-of-state residents versus in state,” he said.

Strong added that a variety of other Western states have differently structured fee schedules, but some ranged between a double and even a triple increase for non-state residents.

What extra fees do exist aren’t much. Aside from Sand Hollow, visitors to Bear Lake State Park, since it is so close to Idaho, also pay a bit more if they don’t have Utah identification.

Out-of-state visitors are having an impact on locals, he added.

“They’re impacting Utah natives’ ability to go and play and enjoy those state parks.” 

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Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, was passionate about the issue of visitation at state parks.

“So Vegas came to visit southern Utah and they often have closed the park so southern Utah residents couldn’t even go to Sand Hollow, and so we’re giving away our assets that (are) displacing Utah citizens. And we’re seeing that across the parks,” he said. “So this actually was driven by leadership to look at this issue.”

Strong said the division is working in conjunction with Utah State University faculty to arrive at a more thorough analysis that includes what other Western states are doing.

Brooks added that an additional fee might encourage non-state visitors to treat in-state treasures with more care.

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“I think our out-of-state visitors get a huge benefit and value when they come to our state,” he said. “Down in St. George at our four parks down there, they get inundated with out-of-state visitors who oftentimes also aren’t as familiar with how to visit our state parks and how to act in our state parks.”

Utah's state parks bursting with visitors

Some lawmakers worried about the potential of any fee hikes driving away young families who just want to get away and get outdoors.

Strong emphasized no fee increases have yet been settled on, and any uptick in price would apply to non-state residents and mirror more accurately what neighboring states are doing.

Lawmakers are also discussing the possibility of moving to a digital pass for in-state residents as some states have done.

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