Zinke introduces bill to improve collaboration between parks, gateway communities

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke has teamed with Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) to introduce bipartisan legislation to aid communities adjacent to national parks deal with the impacts of skyrocketing visitation.

The Gateway Communities and Recreation Enhancement Act was introduced on Wednesday and is a companion bill to one introduced by Sens. Steve Daines and Angus King (I-Maine) in February.

The bill would create a pilot program to encourage people visiting more congested national parks to explore lesser-known and lesser-visited recreation sites on adjacent public land; it would create a streamlined digital recreational pass that would make it easier for people to access public land without having to get multiple permits or passes; and it would call for the creation of a system to capture real-time data on land use and give that to the public so that they can better plan their own visits. Perhaps most notably, the bill would also require the National Park Service to consult with local communities before restricting access to the park.

In an interview with Montana Free Press Wednesday, shortly before the bill was introduced, Zinke said that efforts to limit park congestion negatively impact locals the most. He said it was especially concerning in places like Glacier National Park, near where Zinke grew up, which has been buckling under the pressure of ever-increasing visitation the last few years. In recent years, park managers have had to close parts of Glacier Park because there were too many people.

To handle that increasing visitation, Glacier has instituted a new ticket system during the summer months, much to the dismay of locals. Zinke has been critical of the system and earlier this spring called on Glacier Park officials to alter the hours a ticket was needed, specifically in the afternoon. Presently, during peak visitation months, people need a ticket to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., but Zinke would like to see that moved to 1 p.m.

During a town hall meeting in Columbia Falls last month, Zinke was heavily critical of local managers restricting access to Glacier, even alleging that "their nirvana would be a park ranger wearing a GoPro where the public would only experience the park remotely."

On Wednesday, he was more restrained, saying that he understood local managers were up against some major challenges this year, especially as the park tries to complete a major road construction project along the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. He said his team was having positive discussions with Glacier Superintendent Dave Roemer and that he was "hopeful" some changes could be made to park access this summer. Zinke, a Republican and the former secretary of the Department of the Interior, said he thought the Park Service should specifically reconsider the need for a ticketing system on the east side at places like Many Glacier and Two Medicine.

"We can't lose sight of why the national parks are here," Zinke told MTFP. "It's for the benefit of the people."

In a press release, Rep. Peltola said that the ultimate goal of the legislation was to bring down barriers between parks and their local communities.

"National parks are important to Alaska and are deeply connected to local economies," Peltola said. "This legislation will provide additional opportunities for local communities to benefit from and engage in decision-making about their local park economies. It will also encourage more people to visit our national parks as digital passes become more and more a norm in everyday life. I am happy to co-lead this bill - and hope it will help to lift up the communities that support America's national parks."

The bill would also require public land managers to collaborate with local stakeholders to address the needs of gateway communities, particularly when it comes to housing.

In recent years, as more and more people have moved to places like the Flathead Valley near Glacier, home and rent prices have skyrocketed, leaving few places for seasonal workers to live. Zinke said he was hopeful the bill will lead to solutions, including the potential building of temporary housing near parks.

How quickly the Gateway Communities and Recreation Enhancement Act will move through Congress is unclear, especially as congressional leaders and President Joe Biden focus on trying to forge a deal to raise the debt ceiling before June 1, when the country is expected to default on its debt. Zinke said he was optimistic that both sides would forge a deal before then and that he believed the Republican proposal to cut spending in return for raising the debt ceiling was "reasonable." Biden, however, has said he wants to raise the debt ceiling to cover the spending that Congress has already approved.


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