Daines bill aims to boost national park gateway communities

Source: Helena Independent Record

s outdoor recreation and tourism on public land skyrocket, a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate aims to increase collaboration between national parks and the communities around them.

The Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act would mandate that the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture coordinate with so-called gateway communities to national parks and other high-use federal recreation lands to better understand and address the challenges the communities face due to increased tourism and recreation. The bill would also create a pilot program for providing visitors with real-time data on park crowds and alternative recreation sites that may be less busy.

The Department of the Interior oversees the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The Department of Agriculture oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

The bill, S. 390, was introduced by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, in the Senate Feb. 13. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, is the bill’s co-sponsor. As of Monday, the bill had been assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee but hadn’t yet received further action. King is the chairman of that committee’s National Parks Subcommittee; Daines is the subcommittee’s ranking member.

“Montana’s national parks and public lands are the crown jewels of the United States, and our Montana gateway communities know firsthand the benefits and the challenges they bring,” Daines said in a statement. “Just as we protect our great outdoors, we also must take care of the communities supporting our national parks, especially as they face record visitation that has put a strain on their businesses, employees and housing.”

Daines introduced a similar bill under the same name in the 2022 Congress. That bill, also co-sponsored by King, was later bundled into the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act of 2022, a larger package introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso. The Manchin bill collected an additional 17 co-sponsors — eight Republicans, seven Democrats and two Independents — including Daines and King. But the bill never made it to the Senate floor.

The revived Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act grew from six pages last year to 11 pages in this iteration. The bill defines a “gateway community” as “a community that serves as an entry point or is adjacent to a recreation destination on federal recreational lands and waters or non-federal land at which there is consistently high, in the determination of the secretaries (of the Interior and Agriculture), seasonal or year-round visitation.”

In an interview Tuesday, Glacier National Park Superintendent Dave Roemer said he had a tough time finding housing when he moved to the park for the job last summer: “It wasn’t easy for me, and I’m the superintendent.” The park brings on upward of 400 seasonal staff for the summer, in addition to about 100 year-round employees, he said. 

“Not all of them are in housing; our housing stock is not that great,” he said, noting that a portion of seasonal staff must find their own housing. The park received additional funding to rent enough local apartments to house 30 more seasonal workers, he said. But that’s if the park can actually secure the units. “Everyone’s hiring seasonal help for all the hotels, restaurants, the park concessions. It’s a lot of people looking for housing.” 

Kevin Gartland of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that “increased visitation exacerbates our community’s infrastructure woes, specifically with regard to traffic congestion, parking shortages and public transit.” Racene Friede, president and CEO of the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, said in a statement that “at different times of the year, many of our communities are at a breaking point — housing shortages, unsustainable demands on infrastructure, negative impact on natural resources — and the positive economic impact of tourism is being negated by the toll on the communities.”

The bill would aid communities by encouraging the dispersal of recreation and tourism to more places, supporters said. It would also garner more federal support for gateway communities.

Specifically, the bill would direct Interior and Agriculture to collaborate with state and local governments, tribal nations, housing authorities, nonprofits and other stakeholders in gateway communities to better understand housing shortages, demands on municipal infrastructure, visitor accommodations, and other tourism and recreation sites nearby. The departments could address those needs by providing money or technical assistance through existing programs, or by issuing special-use permits, leases or rights-of-way.

The bill would also direct the departments to aid gateway communities “through the use of existing, or the establishment of new, entrepreneur and vocational training programs, technical assistance programs, low-interest business loan programs, and loan guarantee programs.” The departments may partner with a gateway community or local business in a gateway community to achieve those goals.

The bill would also require the departments to compile an annual report tracking visitation “in a consistent manner” for every unit of federal recreation land and water in the U.S. The departments would have to track participation in a variety of recreation activities across the units.

And, the bill would create the “Real-Time Data Pilot Program,” aimed at offering the public “real-time or predictive” visitor data for federal recreation land. The departments would have to debut the program within two years in 15 national parks and five national forest sites. Within five years, the program would be expanded to more than 100 sites.

In addition to offering real-time data on how busy a park or other recreation site is, the program would recommend “lesser-known recreation sites” nearby, including those managed by other federal agencies, or a state or local agency.

The bill would also require a digital version, available on mobile devices, of the America The Beautiful Pass for national parks and other federal lands.