For the first time in decades, the National Park Service i demanding a fair share of concessions income for the benefit of the parks and Americans for whom they are held in trust. The long-term sweetheart contracts with entrenched concessionaires have given almost nothing back to the park service, which reduced staff and postponed improvements even as the number of visitors to its 360 priceless properties soared.
These privileged contractors typically paid only 75 cents for each $100 of revenue from the lodges, stores, gift shops, horse rides and restaurants. Under recent competitively bid contracts, the Park Service will be getting close to $20 per $100 of revenue, earmarked for park improvements.
The most important contract by far is for Yosemite National Park in California, where 3.5 million visitors spend over $85 million a year.
In December, the government selected a new concessionaire, which agreed to clean up chemical leakage from old buried fuel tanks, spend $100 million on improvements, remove autos and cabins from the sensitive valley floor and pay $62 million for facilities of the previous vendor.
Bruce Babbitt, the new interior secretary, wants Congress to review the Yosemite contract, which will serve as a model for future parks concessions. That scrutiny would help to clarify what commercial activities are acceptable in our national parks.
There are concerns that the new concessionaire may not fulfill all the tough conditions and that it did not offer the highest bid. But the competitive process signals a major change in the relationship of monopoly concessionaires and the National Park Service. Two months ago, a new contract with Mount Rushmore called for the Park Service to receive a 26 percent cut of income. Ironically, the Yosemite contract changed hands only because of xenophobic outrage that the previous vendor was bought by a Japanese firm.
Blame for the old system is shared: the revolving door between concessionaires and the Interior Department; congressional validation of long-term monopolies in the parks in 1965; the old federal policy that contract fees went into the treasury, not to the parks.
Prices for park services will undoubtedly rise under the new agreements. But the public should benefit as these higher revenues are used to preserve our irreplaceable national heritage.