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City Desk

Plan to privatize National Parks not going away, group says


Big Sky Connection

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Eric Tegethoff


December 5, 2019

HELENA, Montana - The disbanding of an Interior Department advisory committee last month quieted some of the talk on privatizing features of national parks.


But Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based public lands watchdog group, says that was the beginning of plans to monetize some of the country's most iconic sites.


The Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee - or, as it was commonly known, the Made in America Committee - recommended privatizing campgrounds, offering Wi-Fi, inviting food trucks and more to national parks in late September, and faced immediate criticism.


O'Neill says after its proposal, the committee had served its purpose and so, there was no harm in breaking it up.


"They've already recommended a proposal that has been widely controversial and they've seen a lot of backlash for it," he states. "So, 'Hey, we've got the recommendations. Let's disband the committee, squelch the fears, but then not tell anybody what this 'robust modernization plan' is.'"


The National Park Service says it has yet to take action on the committee's recommendations, although O'Neill notes that the agency hasn't rejected them either.


National parks face a maintenance backlog of $12 billion. The Trump administration says modernizing the parks with private sector help can address infrastructure issues.


O'Neill says the Made in America Committee was packed with industry concessionaires that currently profit off of national parks. At least three members were flagged by the Interior Department as having potential conflicts of interest.


O'Neill says more concerning is that these plans are being made without public involvement.


"It should be done in the public, not behind closed doors, with input from all users to see really how we think and Americans think our national parks should be in the future," he stresses. "Should they look more like amusement parks or like they traditionally have?"


O'Neill adds that this fits in with the Trump administration's overall public lands inclinations.


"All groups that care about our national parks and public land groups are being very diligent because there's a concerning trend here under the Trump administration that they want to monetize and privatize public assets across the board," he states.

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