Roanoke Times
                 Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: FRIDAY, October 22, 1993                   TAG: 9403180014
DATELINE:                                 LENGTH: Long


IMAGINE A monopoly game played with real money, where your opponent buys every property on the board at cut-rate prices and then places hotels on all of them before a single roll of the dice has occurred. You'd say: "The game's a joke. I'm not playing."

Unfortunately, the National Park Service has been running a rigged monopoly game in our national parks - giving away lucrative monopolies to private concessioners who make huge profits by providing food, lodging and gift shop services to park visitors, but pay only a pittance back to the taxpayers.

This is a scandal. Fortunately, we have a good opportunity to make things right. Between now and the end of 1994, 114 of 195 lucrative national-park concessions contracts will be up for renewal. Both the Clinton administration and Congress must change the law before taxpayers are locked into decades more of giveaway contracts.

The sweetheart deals allowed under current law involve concessioners operating in 132 national parks and include the following elements:

Franchise fees that are the equivalent of grand larceny against the taxpayer.

In 1991, national park concessioners paid $18 million in franchise fees on total gross sales of $618 million, a paltry 2.9 percent of gross. In some cases fees are as low as 0.75 percent. For example, the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. had $86.5 million in gross receipts in 1991, but paid only $649,000 in franchise fees.

These are pathetically small fees for the exclusive right to sell food, lodging, goods or gifts to a captive market of 275 million park visitors.

Renewals: Unfair concessioner-for-life contracts. When contracts expire, park concessioners have the right to match or beat any competing offer, turning the notion of competition into a farce.

A recent report by the Interior Department's Inspector General found that, of 29 contract offerings, 28 incumbent concessioners had no competing offer. In unique cases where there was no incumbent, there was plenty of competition: Six firms competed for the lucrative Yosemite concession vacancy when the incumbent sold out.

The right to sully national treasures in pursuit of exorbitant profits.

While the National Park Service is supposed to allow only concessions that are "necessary and appropriate," and to locate them in areas where the least environmental damage will occur, it has violated its own policy.

As a result, the park service has allowed some parks to be overbuilt with businesses that compete with those existing in nearby communities outside park borders, and has allowed park gift shops to sell tacky little ashtrays, shot glasses and toilet-paper holders that are anything but necessities for park visitors.

Massive real-estate subsidies. Concessioners are essentially leaseholders on federal land. Any structures they build or improve should transfer to the landowner - the federal government - when the lease ends. But rather than pay a fair price for these structures - the original construction price minus depreciation - the park service pays the concessioners today's replacement cost for the structure. Concessioners who terminate or transfer their business get a massive and undeserved windfall while the taxpayers pay the bill.

Adding insult to injury, revenue derived from park concessions never makes it to the parks, where it is desperately needed. Instead, the fees are dumped into a general treasury account. Yet, national parks have a $2.2 billion-and-growing maintenance backlog and a $477 million backlog of natural-resources projects that Congress won't pay for.

For example, at Yellowstone National Park, 90 percent of the trails are considered unsatisfactory and 80 percent of park roads are in need of repair.

This need not be so. Most state parks and other public agencies require higher concession franchise fees, often ranging from 8 percent to 20 percent of gross sales, sometimes even topping 50 percent. To assure that state governments get a fair fee, states require competitive bidding with no favoritism for incumbents.

In his "Reinventing Government" report, Vice President Al Gore wrote: "Ending subsidies to concessionaires ... would let the [National Park Service] invest more in its crumbling infrastructure and spend more to protect America's priceless natural heritage."

Gore is right.

Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and Rep. Jan Meyers, R-Kan., would turn the vice president's words into reality through their National Park Service Concessions Policy Reform Act. Among other needed changes, this legislation would:

Establish minimum franchise fees for each concession, reflecting the economic value of the business to the operator.

End concessioner-for-life contracts by requiring a competitive-bidding process.

Earmark all franchise fee revenues for park programs and repair needs.

Require that concessions services be provided only when the park service determines that they are necessary and appropriate, and unavailable in the vicinity of the park.

Eliminate inflated payments for concessioner-built structures on federal park land.

This legislation needs to be swiftly passed not only because it would stop financial waste, but because it would help to protect our national parks from over-commercialization.

National parks are owned by the American people. They exist for our benefit - not for the benefit of a handful of private monopolies.

Paul C. Pritchard, a former Interior Department official, is president of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

 by CNB