CLIMBERS attempting North America's tallest peak will have to fork over $200 to help defray management costs - especially rescues - if a controversial policy proposed last week by the United States National Park Service is approved.
The proposal - targeted for 1995 - includes both 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley and 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker in Alaska's Denali National Park. The fee would mark the first time that climbers would be charged for scaling a mountain in the US.
The policy would require climbers to register at least 60 days before starting a climb, giving mountaineering rangers time to educate them about dangers. Both peaks already require registration, but that can be done just before the climb.
The proposal fits into a wider campaign by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to raise public-lands user fees - including controversial grazing and mining fees and several fees for parks, proposed in Interior's 1995 fiscal year budget. Already, rafters on the Grand Canyon's Colorado River must pay a $75 fee.
Advocates say the need for cost-recovery in national parks is dire. Recreational visits jumped 44 percent from 1980 to 1992, while facilities frayed. The Park Service has estimated its maintenance backlog ranges up to $4 billion, and more cuts are impending.
In Alaska, the Park Service says the climbing-fee proposal is likely to spark anger. "I think the general population of climbers will, at first, be shocked that there's a user fee," said J.D. Swed, Denali's chief mountaineering ranger.
Whipped by sub-Arctic storms, McKinley - Denali ("The High One"), by its Athabascan Indian name - and Foraker have, in recent years, been the sites of dramatic high-altitude rescues and a rash of climber deaths. In 1992, a record 11 people died on McKinley, two on Foraker.
Park Service mountaineering costs run at about $607 per climber, Mr. Swed said. Last year, a record 1,108 people climbed McKinley and 20 attempted Foraker, while some 260 scaled other peaks in the park.
The Park Service lists costs as some $200,000 for a high-altitude helicopter from Talkeetna, the launch-site town for most expeditions; $160,000 for staff and equipment in Talkeetna and at the 14,000-foot ranger camp; and an average $131,000 a year in rescue costs.
Compared to the $2,000 to $3,000 price of a McKinley expedition, a $200 fee is small. It's less than round-trip air fare from Talkeetna to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna …