Nurturing National Parks

NOW we enter the peak season for visiting America's wonderful National Parks. It is also the time when park facilities and services are under their heaviest stress.

The number of visitors to the parks in 1992 was 274.7 million, a threefold increase over the 79.2 million in 1960. National Park officials see no end to the upward trend. Profits for park concessionaires who provide food, lodging, and other services for visitors, have also grown substantially. But funding of park administration and upkeep has not increased in proportion.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas has introduced a bill that seeks to more realistically allocate park revenues between concessionaires and the Park Service, making more money available for upkeep and improvement of the parks - and for better service for visitors.

The National Park Service Concessions Policy Reform Act (S.208) ``seeks to correct management shortcomings and financial abuses that are occurring under the existing law,'' Senator Bumpers says. He points to ``bargain-basement franchise fees paid by concessionaires to the federal government.''

Bumpers also cites low rental rates for use of government buildings in the parks and barriers to competition for concession contracts. Incumbent concessionaires can keep a contract by matching competing bids. Concessionaire fees go to the US Treasury, not to the parks.

S.208 would eliminate concessionaires' preferential right of renewal, set minimum franchise fees, and require open competition for contracts. Bumpers says this would result in some $40 million of increased park revenue. It would also ``dedicate concessions revenue for resource management and protection, maintenance activities ..., and research in the National Park System.''

Two other key provisions: Limit concession contracts to terms of no more than 10 years and require congressional review of all concession contracts for operations expected to gross more than $1 million annually over more than five years.

The National Parks and Conservation Association says a fair portion of concession receipts should go to the to the National Park Service for its needs.

The Bumpers bill merits the backing of all Americans who utilize and appreciate the national parks.

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