National park concessionaires, deeply concerned over what they see as three decades of stagnant visitation to the National Park System, want Congress to authorize better marketing of the parks, longer "high" seasons in the parks they believe would generate more revenues for infrastructure improvements, and expanded concessionaire opportunities in the parks.
Those items were among a list of nine that Derrick Crandall, counselor of the National Park Hospitality Association, recently presented to a House appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
"Mr. Chairman and Members, I know you would agree that we need to get Americans back in touch with nature, engaged in physical activities and outdoor recreation, and connected to the magnificent culture, heritage and landscapes that are celebrated by our National Park System," Mr. Crandall said in remarks prepared for his appearance before the subcommittee on March 19.
"We need to reach out to youth to encourage them to share in the wonder and enjoyment of our National Parks and discourage the increasingly sedentary lifestyles that are contributing to our health care crisis. We need to expand park visitation to encourage minorities, disadvantaged communities, new Americans and urban residents to see their national parks for themselves and to build a broader constituency for America’s great outdoors. And, we need to find new and innovative ways to reinvest in the maintenance, restoration, and expansion of critical park infrastructure – much of which was built either by private investment when the national parks were first created, or in conjunction with the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps more than half a century ago."
While visitation to the National Park System reached a record 292.8 million in 2014, an increase of more than 19 million from 2013, NHPA officials say visitation has "actually declined if you discount new units added to the system."
The solution? According to NHPA, a range of initiatives should be implemented, including:
* Extend the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act for two years to allow the Park Service to continue to collect fees for entry into park units and a variety of recreational activities, including backcountry usage, campgrounds, and boat launches;
* "(C)ontinuation and expansion of the Centennial Challenge Program. Encouraging non-profits, corporations and individuals to contribute toward important national park programs and projects...";
* Creation of a "National Park Outreach and Promotion Fund," funded by a transfer of 10 percent of the concessionaire franchise fees to "support NPS outreach and marketing efforts in partnership with states, gateway communities and concessioners;"
* Expanding the seasons at national parks, a move that would lead to increase visitor spending and franchise fees for the Park Service. These revenues, coupled with "investment requirements under new concessions contracts and appropriate use of existing Leasehold Surrender Interest" should be used to improve infrastructure in the park system.
"There has been a loss of rooms, of restaurant capacity, of services and of retail space in national parks over two decades, producing a corresponding decline in overnight stays and in the average length of visitor stays," Mr. Crandall told the subcommittee.
* More national park campgrounds should be managed by concessionaires "to improve visitor services and reduce operating costs";
* Concessionaires should be allowed to qualify for "historic tax credits from investments in structures" in the parks, and;
* Programs such as Youth Conservation Corps utilized in Yellowstone and Shenandoah national parks should be expanded across the system to "undertake construction, reconstruction and maintenance projects," possibly at a savings for the Park Service.
During a conversation with the Traveler last week, Mr. Crandall said the concessionaires don't expect the Park Service to "dramatically" expand road systems in national parks, but would like to see facility improvements and additions and believe it can be done without posing a great competitive threat to lodging and dining options in gateway communities.
"We seem to be headed in just one direction (in the parks): No increase, reduce, reduce," he said. "While that may be appropriate for Yosemite Valley, while that may be appropriate for portions of Yellowstone, I think for the park system overall, that's not a wise tactic.
"... I think what we're really saying, there is still an opportunity to enhance the ability of visitors to enjoy their park experience in a small portion of the footprint of our National Park System, and by doing that, just have a more robust experience when they're in the parks," Mr. Crandall went on.
"We're not talking about adding dramatically to the road system of the national parks because people now by and large see the parks out of their windshields. The last thing I would ever say is that that's justification for building more roads. But I would say that when you look at Yosemite Valley, and you have 1,500 rooms, which is down dramatically from what we used to have, and only 800 of those have bathrooms, I'm not afraid to say at some point we should look at how we upgrade those rooms so that 1,500 rooms have 1,500 bathrooms."
How Congress responds to the concessionaires remains to be seen, but Mr. Crandall plans to continue discussions with the appropriate committee and subcommittee chairs and ranking members.
"I'd say we got an enthusiastic level of support from all of the members of Congress that we talked to," he said in reference to his recent appearance before the subcommittee. "And that includes even people on the minority side. They all agree that they want to continue a successful pattern of providing services for the visitors in the parks through private sector investment in things like lodges."