MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel

Gregg and Suzanne Perry walk their dog, Emmette, at James M. Robb Colorado River State Park in Fruita on Thursday.

A proposal by Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff to offer a new annual state park pass for $29 sparked concerns from some CPW commissioners that it risks adding to crowding at sites without doing much to boost revenues for operating them.

The proposal is intended to implement the Keep Colorado Wild pass program created as a result of legislation passed last year. The law requires that the pass be offered to motorists when they register their vehicles or renew registrations. It mandates that the pass be priced at no more than half of the current $80 cost of an annual pass applying to one vehicle.

Motorists would have the option of opting out of buying the pass. However, advocates hope that even with the reduced price, the program will boost pass sales enough to result in increased revenues for park staffing and operations. Revenue beyond $32.5 million a year would help fund search and rescue and avalanche information programs, with revenues beyond $36 million also going for things such as wildlife conservation, new trails, trail maintenance and river recreation projects.

Parks and Wildlife arrived at their price recommendation based on online and mail-based surveys by consultants that gauged people’s willingness to buy passes at varying price points, with the results being used to estimate how much revenue could result based on pricing levels. Not surprisingly, that research shows the probability of people buying passes falls as the price pass rises for the first vehicle. It found people are much less likely to buy a pass for a second vehicle at any of the prices mentioned in the survey.

The research indicates that conservatively, based on people surveyed saying they definitely would buy a pass, total park revenues from the pass sales would reach $29.5 million a year at annual pass prices of $29 to $35, a revenue peak compared to other price levels in the survey. That also includes revenue from other sources such as day passes and out-of-state-visitor passes. Under an optimistic scenario also accounting for the percentage of people who said they probably would buy a pass, the research suggests total park revenue could reach as much as $59 million at a pass price of $29 to $32.

Total park revenue in the 2021 fiscal year was $26.8 million.

The research suggests that visitation could grow by 25% to 55% under the conservative pass sales scenario and by 40% to 90% under the optimistic projection.

Katie Lanter, the agency’s policy and planning supervisor, told commissioners at their meeting this week that a $29 price “appears to achieve the revenue that may slightly exceed our current revenue and potentially reach higher levels.”

“... We at the division are trying to strike a balance between realizing sufficient revenue and managing the potential increase in visitation,” she said.

But Commissioner Charles Garcia argued for a price of around $39 or $40.

“I don’t see why we want to go lower than that,” he said.

He said that gives people the same product they now receive at half the price, and his goal is to to achieve the most revenue with the least visitation to parks.

“They’re already overcrowded,” he said.

Some other commissioners shared his concerns.

“If the goal is to sell as many (passes) as possible regardless of price, that is counterproductive to our mission of keeping the maintenance of the parks and keeping the quality of experience,” said Commissioner Dallas May.

Said Commissioner Betsy Blecha, “I’m on the page of, like, let’s charge as much as we can and let’s go from there because I don’t feel we need to give any more discounts to our product.”

Garcia said, “I think we need to be more realistic in our expectations in terms of increasing our visitation with those kind of numbers without a corresponding increase in our revenues.”

Said Commissioner Jay Tutchton, “I don’t want to be swamped with visitation and the lack of revenue at the same time.”

Doug Vilsack, assistant director of parks, wildlife and lands for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the $29 million conservative estimate essentially indicates pass sales if no effort was made in terms of outreach to people who said they probably would buy the pass. Locking in sales to those people would mean up to $30 million in additional annual revenue that would allow for a lot to be done in state parks, he said.

“We still have a tremendous amount of potential with this pass,” he said.

Garcia worried about more sales under the optimistic scenario further driving up visitation numbers. But Heather Dugan, an assistant director for Parks and Wildlife, compared annual park passes to gym passes, noting that people tend to use gym passes more at first before that usage drops off for many.

Commissioner Eden Vardy said he supports the $29 price recommendation. He said there are technological options for managing visitation capacity, just as he sees occur at ski mountains through communication measures such as phone apps to show percentage of use of parking lots.

Commissioner Taishya Adams said she’s eager to find a balance between human and environmental needs. She said she understands that the state parks are a valuable and important resource.

“At the same time we know that having humans out on the land makes them better humans,” she said.

Parks and Wildlife staff plan to present final options for commissioners to consider in March.