Everglades National Park will delay a planned hike in entrance fees while the park continues whittling away at a massive backlog of maintenance repairs.
Superintendent Pedro Ramos said Friday the park would postpone a 2020 hike — the second since January 2019 — to tackle work that makes up a backlog estimated to be at least $88 million in 2018. Those fixes include major damage to Flamingo, where the only overnight lodgings, other than tents and two houseboats, were destroyed 15 years ago in Hurricane Wilma.
“Until we have a full complement of services in Flamingo,” Ramos said in a statement, “we will maintain our entrance fees at the 2019 level.”
In the meantime, entry to the park will be free Monday, on Martin Luther King Day.
The park uses its entrance fees to help pay for repairs that have mounted in recent years amid budget cuts. Nationwide, park maintenance backlogs have reached nearly $12 billion, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
In South Florida, hits by powerful hurricanes like Wilma and Irma have taken a steep toll. Wilma knocked down the old lodge and damaged the visitor center erected as part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 project in the 1960s. In 2017, Irma blasted across the park’s western boundary, destroying the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, which remains temporarily housed in a trailer.
Storms can also drive away visitors. A year after Wilma, the number dropped by about 280,000. After Irma in 2018, the number plummeted to under 600,000 — the lowest since the 1960s.
Last year, the park increased the fee for seven-day passes for vehicles and vessels from $25 to $30. Motorcycle passes rose from $20 to $25 and pedestrian, bike and paddler fees nearly doubled to $15. For the first time, the park also began charging fees for water entry, angering fishing guides and sometimes cross in and out of the park depending on conditions.
The increases were part of a two-part, two-year plan to help address the backlog, with this second hike scheduled for 2020. About 80 percent of the money collected stays in the park.
Park officials had also planned on more progress in rebuilding the overnight lodging. Officials awarded a contract to a Virginia hospitality company in 2017 to build 24 cottages and eco-tents. They were expected to open by December 2019. But only 20 tents — raised on platforms and outfitted with beds and porches — opened in November.
Construction on the cottages is now slated to begin in the spring, park spokeswoman Allyson Gantt said.
With work expected to take about a year and a half, she said the cottages should be open in time for the 2021-22 winter season.