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    NPS proposes improvements to visitor service program

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    The National Park Service proposes improvements to the regulations that govern contracts to enhance visitor services at parks and monuments. If approved, the revisions would reduce administrative burdens for concessionaires to promote competition, provide more flexibility to add new services, and encourage investment in concession facilities, according to a statement from the Department of Interior.

    Balanced Rock
    The Department of Interior hopes to remove obstacles that reportedly stifle competition among concessionaires at national Parks. Above, Balanced Rock at Arches National Park. Photo by Doug McMurdo

    This is a part of the department’s efforts to expand access to and improve the infrastructure on public lands and waters, including through the use of public-private partnerships.
    The order is intended to provide the public with more recreational opportunities and memorable experiences on the department’s public lands and waters, according to a press release from the agency. The proposed rule is responsive to these directives, suggestions received from visitor service providers, and areas for improvement identified by the NPS, said the department in its statement.
    “Concessionaires have been creating lasting national park memories for more than 125 years. The proposed changes are an important step toward strengthening our public-private partnerships and expanding sustainable, high-quality and contemporary visitor services in our national parks,” said National Park Service Deputy Director David Vela. Concessionaires generate $1.5 billion in gross revenues annually in over 100 units of the NPS. These companies bring investment, facilities and recreation opportunities to national parks. They pay approximately $135 million in fees to the NPS annually and employ more than 25,000 people. Services provided include food, lodging, gifts and souvenirs, equipment rental, marinas, transportation, guided recreation, and other visitor services. The Concessions Management Improvement Act of 1998, which governs these concession agreements, has not been substantively revised since the implementing regulations were first promulgated in April 2000.
    Concessionaires have used private funds to build most of the lodges and key visitor facilities in the national parks. These buildings are now government property, maintained and operated by the companies. However, the trend for contract terms has been shorter over time, discouraging investment. Efforts to develop new visitor services often fail. Pricing approval policies are burdensome and complex. Prospectuses for concessionaire services have not attracted companies new to the field and many have drawn no offers, officials complain. There has been very little expansion of concessionaire-provided visitor services to new units of the National Park System, which could address overcrowding in some of the most popular parks. The proposed regulatory revisions are a positive step toward addressing these concerns.
    The NPS proposes to improve the way it bids, awards and administers these contracts. The goal of these changes is to improve the experience of visitors at national park units. Examples of the proposed changes include:
    –Soliciting and considering suggestions from the public, including from potential concessionairers, for new commercial services in parks and adding flexibility to how bids are scored so that results more accurately reflect what is most important for park visitors.
    –Changing the criteria for what improvements are eligible for cost recovery to encourage investment in visitor facilities.
    –Setting appropriate rates for goods and services based on market forces.
    –Adding new services or facilities to an existing contract, as necessary and appropriate for public use and enjoyment, and lengthening contract terms to enhance services and improve the experience of visitors at national park units.
    Members of the public are invited to share their comments on the proposed rule. Comments can be submitted online.

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