As outrage boiled over this week about a hefty charge for commercial photographers in Garden of the Gods, there was similar seething among other users who learned they too would have to pay.
“A lot of people latched onto the photography thing,” said rock climbing guide Jeremiah Meizis. “It’s like, ‘Wait! There’s a lot more people affected here!’”
On top of a $50 application fee, a permit would be $500 for the year or $150 for the day. “The purpose,” read an official email to companies, “is to provide an avenue for commercial users of the park to participate in the preservation and maintenance of Garden of the Gods Park.”
Gaye Jacobs, a Denver-based step-on guide for bus tours, said she immediately started calling around to Colorado Springs offices. She pleaded: The buses just stopped at the Visitor and Nature Center, where dozens of senior citizens went to the bathroom, paid to watch the movie, bought souvenirs and maybe a sandwich and something to drink. They just drove through the Garden and continued their itinerary.
Unsatisfied by what she heard back, “I got a little testy,” Jacobs said. “I said, ‘Gosh, if this goes through, I’ll start passing the word on to my clients and we’ll just go somewhere else.’”
While the parks department has backtracked on the photography costs, saying public feedback will be considered, it appears the broader permitting system will remain in place approaching what promises to be another record-setting summer of visitation in the city’s crown jewel.
“As far as I know, it’s still moving forward,” said Jan Martin, president of the Garden of the Gods Foundation, which owns the Visitor and Nature Center, the park’s historic funding arm that will manage fees and applications.
That goes for “any commercial activity that provides goods, services, or activities,” according to the city’s outline, including sold trips on foot, hooves or wheels, art workshops, fitness classes and day camps. An agreement for administering the permits was signed by Martin and Karen Palus, the city’s parks director, in July.
Seventy percent of gross revenues would be for “support of the park,” the agreement mandated, while 30% would go toward improving the aging visitor center. The city “would provide information to the public and park visitors” regarding the plan.
But critics say the city failed on that communication, with some recalling another decision that caught park lovers by surprise and made for embarrassing headlines nationwide. “If you wonder how big metal frames appear in the park overnight, this probably isn’t far off,” read an anonymous message that circulated inboxes this week.
Brian Shelton, a longtime climbing guide at the Garden, said he heard “rumblings” of permits the past three or four months. He considered the $500 “a bit of a steep flat fee.” But he spoke for most companies he knew operating in the Garden when he said, “You’re gonna make that back very quickly.”
Shelton said he was surprised it took this long for permits to be established. Other city park systems across the Front Range have had them, including Boulder, boasting the Flatirons, a National Natural Landmark like the Garden.
Annual commercial permits for that city’s parks are $300. That’s $500 for “high use” in Fort Collins’ parks. In Aurora parks, commercial photography and video runs between $250 and $1,000 on single days.
National parks also charge businesses fees. And the comparison is worthwhile when considering the Garden’s estimated 6 million visitors every year. That’s on par with the second-most visited national park, the Grand Canyon (6.3 million), and more than Rocky Mountain National Park (4.5 million).
Issues are compounded by a city parks department that is notoriously underfunded, still below prerecession levels.
The permits are “something that’s been needed for a long time,” Shelton said. “With all the commercial uses that go on in the Garden, if you’re in the money-making business, you should be giving a portion of that back for upkeep.”
Fair enough, said a competitor, Meizis. “Happy to do that,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was weird that parks didn’t have a permit system.”
His problem isn’t the money. His problem is giving it to the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, LLC.
As opposed to public land managers he works with on permits elsewhere, “It’s weird that I’m gonna be giving the visitor center a check,” Meizis said, “especially because the visitor center has its own guide service that they advertise.”
That’s Shelton’s company, one of three with contracts to sell services out of the visitor center, along with Adventures Out West and Amp’d Adventures.
The deals were made years after philanthropist Lyda Hill spent millions to build the visitor center, seeing it as the future life source for an eroding, increasingly trampled landscape that needed money to survive. The Garden of the Gods Foundation went on to assume the LLC, since 1995 reporting $4.2 million in investments back to the park.
Martin has heard the discontent, that the permits underscore competitive unfairness, but she said the in-house outfits would pay the same fees.
The visitor center is mostly staffed by volunteers, with five paid employees, Martin said. And while the administrative agreement has spawned suspicions of private wrongdoing — an LLC is not held to the transparency requirements of a public office — another side argues it’s an example of do-goodery.
Could the city oversee the permits? Perhaps, said Hank Scarangella, an advocate with the Friends of the Garden of the Gods and former member of the parks board.
“But yeah, does the city benefit from the visitor center doing it? Sure,” he said. “One less thing the city has to do.”
Another point of contention regarding the permits is the famous line by which the park was founded: “Forever free to the public,” reads the plaque on one rock cathedral, expressing the wish of Charles Elliott Perkins in donating the land to the city 111 years ago.
Jacobs, the bus guide in Denver, knows that wish well, having grown up in the Springs. The permits are “an end-around,” she said. “They’re not calling it an entrance fee because they can’t, so they’re calling it a permit. But I think of it as a tax.”
Alas, Perkins’ words are once again up for interpretation.
“He didn’t say it was forever free to every businessman who wanted to generate a profit on the park,” Scarangella said. “He gave it to the citizens to use as a park.”
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