Change in the national parks Old Faithful isn't: More revenues needed from visitor and private concessions fees.

March 04, 1996

OLD FAITHFUL is losing steam pressure and its century-old reputation for reliability. The grand geyser at Yellowstone National Park has slowed down, with longer and less predictable intervals between super-heated eruptions. Earthquakes have altered the underground geology, objects tossed into the cone by curious visitors have clogged and chipped the geyser's vent, tapping of geothermal wells in the region may have affected the fragile geyser system.

The nation's first national park, visited by over 3 million people a year, is facing other problems, too. Infected bison wander from the park, threatening the health of cattle. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone continues to arouse rancher opposition; a federal judge could cancel that program this month.

The year-end federal shutdown was another disruption. Nationwide, the park system estimated daily losses of $104,000 in fees, plus $14 million lost to local tourist economies. This followed congressional efforts to slash park service budgets and target some parks for closing.

Fact is, operating costs of the national park service exceed $1 billion annually, while government revenues from the parks are about one-tenth that amount. Yellowstone costs nearly five times more to operate than it takes in.

Both park visitor and concession fees should be raised. Public surveys show strong support for this step. But proposals to reform lucrative monopoly contracts of companies that sell goods and services in the parks meet repeated defeat. Current law favors entrenched concessioners, with long-term contracts and renewal preferences and a fee system that pays the U.S. less than 3 percent of gross revenues.

It's time for a change in that approach, to increase park revenues rather than shutting down parks. If Old Faithful can change its traditional ways, so can the park system.

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