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Senate bill looks to alleviate park crowding, gateway stresses

by JOHN MCLAUGHLIN
Daily Inter Lake | February 13, 2022 1:00 AM

A congressional bill sponsored by Montana Sen. Steve Daines aims to bolster gateway communities overrun with burgeoning tourism on federal lands by tapping federal coffers to address local housing, infrastructure and other visitation woes.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, has co-sponsored the bill — the Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act — which has been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Daines is the ranking Republican member, and King chairs the underlying Subcommittee on National Parks. Its oversight includes the National Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Trails systems, recreation areas and historic sites, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The proposed bill would require a two-prong federal approach to address increased public lands visitation and to combat resulting strains on nearby communities. The bill would require the Interior and Agriculture departments to partner with local stakeholders on fixes using existing federal funding and programs.

“They already have the tools that they need to get this done,” Rachel Dumke, Daines’ press secretary, said of the agencies. “The senators’ bill is kind of like that push to make sure they’re actually following through and making it happen.”

To that end, the proposal initially would install a pilot program among the Interior and Forest Service via the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local stakeholders to provide crowd data to visitors and highlight alternative recreation areas in an attempt to shed crowds from major destinations.

The proposal secondly would require the agencies to collaborate with state and local partners, and tribes to identify and then address issues like sustainable visitation, housing shortages or troubled infrastructure.

Under the pilot program, the agencies and partners would be required to produce visitation data on select land management units like Glacier National Park by no later than two years of the bill’s potential passage.

Where possible, according to the proposal, the pilot program also would produce crowd data on nearby federal, state or local recreation areas.

“Through different media platforms,” according to the proposed bill, the pilot program additionally would identify lesser-known recreation areas to help disperse visitors.

Initially, 15 federal land management units nationwide would be selected by the Interior for the pilot program, with another five units selected by the Forest Service.

By no later than five years, the agencies would be required to expand the initial list by an additional 80 units, of which at least 50 would have to be managed by the Interior.

Glacier — nor any other park or recreation area — was not named by the proposed bill.

Under its second prong, the agencies would be required to use existing funds and programs to collaborate with “state and local governments, tribal governments, housing authorities, applicable trade associations, nonprofit organizations, and other relevant stakeholders” to delve into the economics of visitation to local communities.

Through such partnerships, the agencies would have to then identify specific community needs. The agencies and partners would also have to “seek to address community needs in gateway communities” through varied options.

Those, according to the bill, would include creating cooperative agreements; offering leases, rights-of-way or easements; and providing financial assistance from existing federal programs.

The proposed bill and Daines’ press office did not identify specific existing funding sources or programs within the Interior or Agriculture departments to carry out the tasks.

In a recent statement, Daines highlighted the worldwide status of U.S. public land management.

“Our national parks and public lands set us apart from the rest of the world, and Montana’s gateway communities know firsthand the benefits and challenges they bring,” Daines said.

“While increased recreation on our public lands and national parks supports jobs and boosts local economies,” he added, “it can also put strains on Montana communities, housing and employees.”

OFFICIALS FROM the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce — representing Coram, Essex, Hungry Horse, Polebridge, West Glacier and Apgar — declined to comment at present on the bill, Executive Director Laura Gadwa wrote in an email.

Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said simply the senators’ recognition of impacts to local communities from upticking tourism proves notable. Columbia Falls is the first incorporated city adjacent to Glacier.

“I’m really glad to see this moving forward,” Nicosia said.

“Obviously, we hope we’re part of the pilot program,” she added. “We definitely have felt the impact from additional tourism, particularly when the east side [of Glacier Park] was closed and it all concentrated over here.”

Atop a general need to preserve locally treasured public lands, she said, is a lack of housing and employees.

“It’s huge,” Nicosia said. “There’s a direct impact that strains our community in terms of housing and employees. … Hopefully this [proposed bill] will move quickly.”

Racene Friede, president and CEO of Missoula-based Glacier Country Tourism, said measures under the proposed bill to promote sustainable tourism coincide with that of the tourism group’s during Covid-19-era surges to public lands.

“In fact, the whole last two years, all of our campaigns have been around recreating responsibly and planning ahead and being aware of what to expect — leave no trace — really common sense concepts for people in Montana,” she said.

Friede said federal avenues to identify and address community stresses from added parks visitation promise a significant opportunity to help remedy several concerns, such as added RV dump stations, a retooling of existing campgrounds or creating additional campgrounds.

“The backlog — whether it’s maintenance or infrastructure or being able to bring utilities or anything else up to date — is so lengthy that, while we’ve made huge strides with the Great American Outdoors Act, there’s still a lot of things that need to be done,” she said.

Signed in 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act taps revenue from energy developments to fund up to $1.9 billion annually for five years following passage to provide maintenance, facilities and infrastructure to public lands and Native American schools.

Sponsored by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and backed by 59 Senate co-sponsors, who included Daines, the landmark act also takes royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund with some $900 million annually.

Reporter John McLaughlin can be reached at 758-4439 or jmclaughlin@dailyinterlake.com