Park Reform Bill Coming

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., plans today to introduce a national parks reform bill that would require more strategic management of the parks and provide new types of parks funding.

Thomas, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources parks subcommittee, toured Wyoming last week in an effort drum up support for the "Vision 2020" plan, which he first previewed to the public last summer.

The bill would require the Interior Department to produce a strategic management plan for the parks system every two years and a detailed budget for each park showing how every dollar is spent. Thomas said that the NPS should take care of existing parks before adding new ones, and that his bill would make it harder to establish new units.

The bill would allow individuals to donate a portion of their income tax refunds to the NPS, and it would create a Park Service Foundation to which corporations could donate money. However, Thomas said he opposed a plan floated by some parks advocates to allow official corporate sponsorship of the parks system he said that approach might lead to overcommercialization.

The bill would also allow the NPS to charge fees for the use of parks in filming movies or television shows (Jennifer McKee, Billings Gazette, 2/20).

Perhaps the "biggest measurable change" would to extend the pilot program raising entrance fees at some of the parks until 2004. The program currently allows about 100 out of 375 parks to charge higher fees and keep 80 percent of the revenues. Thomas's bill would allow more parks to participate and allow parks to retain 100% of the extra revenues (Jeff Tollefson, Casper [Wyo.] Star Tribune, 2/23).

Concessionaire reform--to ensure that taxpayers get the highest return from businesses in the parks--is another "pillar" of the bill (Cody [Wyo.] Enterprise, 2/18), one that Thomas predicted would be controversial. A single concessions manager would be created to oversee all commercial contracts in the parks system, and a concessions board would oversee that manager (Tollefson, Casper [Wyo.] Star Tribune). An additional provision of the bill would allow parks to sell bonds to raise money for resource maintenance, but details of that proposal were still pending on Wednesday.

The environmental community is taking a wait-and-see approach to the bill. Jerome Uher, a spokesperson for the Washington-based National Parks and Conservation Association, told Greenwire that Thomas staffers have been tight-lipped about the bill in recent weeks, causing the NPCA to become increasingly concerned.

Thomas "is taking on a lot of issues that we'd like to see addressed," Uher said, "but if it's not done right, it could lead to more harm than good." In particular, he expressed concerns about corporate sponsorship and details of the concession reform plan, stressing that neither funding mechanism should be seen as a replacement for congressional appropriations.

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