March 1, 2022
Commercial Services Program
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW
Mail Stop 2410, Attn: VEIA Rule Comments
Washington, DC 20240
Subject: Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) 1024-AE47
Dear NPS Commercial Services Program:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 2,100 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), who collectively represent more than 40,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. We engage primarily in issues that have system-wide implications, including proposed laws, national policies and regulations, and issues at the park level where outcomes may set precedent or long-term direction. The purpose of this letter is to comment on the proposed rule by the National Park Service (NPS, Service) regarding the Visitor Experience and Improvement Authority (VEIA) contracts.
The Coalition has reviewed the proposed regulation and applauds the NPS for its efforts to implement the VEIA authority in a manner that will expand, modernize, and improve the condition of commercial facilities and visitor services using contracting models that differ from the concession contracts used under the Concessions Management Improvement Act of 1998. We offer the following comments on the proposed rule:
The VEIA Authority provides a meaningful opportunity for the NPS to attract new businesses to visitor service contracting. Historically, the top revenue-producing concession contracts have been held by just six large companies. Small- to medium-sized companies are unable to compete for these contracts due to the capital required. Without the large capital investment requirements, smaller to medium companies will be able to respond to more prospectus opportunities under the VEIA.
In addition, traditional hospitality and food and beverage management companies have elected not to participate in concession contracts due to a multitude of reasons. These reasons include unfamiliarity with the contracting model, capital investment requirements, contract terms and lengths, and leasehold surrender interest provisions. A VEIA management-style contract is familiar to this industry and should generate substantial interest, resulting in greater competition and ultimately, better service to visitors.
The VEIA authority is beneficial to offerors (potential operators) in that it is not as proscribed as the Concessions Rule. For example, the VEIA does not prescribe selection factors, allowing the NPS to determine the most important factors for each specific contract. Offerors are allowed to propose new or additional services, and the NPS can accept those services, which is not permitted under the concession rules. This allows for more flexibility for the NPS and offerors as well as the ability to negotiate those services, ensuring the public receives the best possible visitor services without compromising resource protection. Another added benefit is the shortened time frame to execute a contract under the VEIA authority compared with current contracting time frames of approximately three years to develop, advertise and execute a contract.
This authority is most beneficial to the America people, in that it allows the greatest benefit to accrue back to the general public with more revenue being retained by the NPS that can be reinvested back into visitor services and other NPS facilities and operations. The economic analysis conducted by IEC (Regulation Assessment and Initial Regulation Flexibility Analysis, October 19, 2021, IEC) indicated that returns to the government would be 13.3 percent greater. To achieve greater returns, the NPS will be taking on greater operational and financial decision making, allowing the NPS to determine when to upgrade facilities and make improvements. The Coalition believes this is a positive move.
The Coalition supports the preservation and conservation of the resources and values of park units and applauds these goals as a primary consideration when parks consider use of the VEIA authority. Visitor experiences at park units are directly tied to the protection of park values and park resources. Therefore, expanding, modernizing and improving facilities must be considered through this lens.
The proposed rule states all revenues will be applied to a revolving fund to be held and managed at the Washington office level. According to NPS Management Policies of 2006, Section 10.2.4.9 Natural and Cultural Resource Management Requirements:
Concessioners are required to comply with applicable provisions of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply to natural and cultural resource protection. The use, maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, restoration, or other modification of concession facilities that are listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places are subject to the applicable provisions of all laws, executive orders, regulations, and policies pertaining to cultural properties. The National Park Service will assist concessioners in understanding and complying with regulations for the protection of historic properties (36 CFR Part 800) promulgated by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
The proposed rule does not provide enough detail to ascertain how the NPS will assist concessioners in understanding and complying with regulations as noted above in NPS Management Policies. It is unclear whether a certain percentage of the revolving fund will be available to NPS staff at the park unit level as is now available with the concession franchise fees used in the current authority. The Coalition believes this should be clarified in any final rule.
The NPS needs to ensure the operations at the park level focus on visitor protection, resources protection and the unique experience for visitors at these facilities be funded adequately. Adequate protection includes ensuring and most likely increasing NPS park staffing levels to match the increased NPS responsibilities noted in the proposed rule. Some examples include:
- law enforcement coverage related to expanded commercial services staff and operations;
- facilities maintenance staffing to cover the increased responsibilities at the park level done by the contractor under the current authority;
- staffing knowledgeable in visitor health and safety management to address wildlife disease, structural fire and water quality concerns;
- staffing knowledgeable in protection of historical significance of facilities and their cultural landscapes; and
- staffing knowledgeable in protection of park natural resources such as facility waste management to protect native wildlife species.
In closing, bringing more revenue and flexibility to the NPS through this authority is beneficial to the agency; but the NPS must also consider the effect on park level operations under the VEIA. The Coalition also supports an extension of the VEIA since the current VEIA will expire on December 16, 2023.
Michael B. Murray, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Ave NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
cc: Kurt Rausch, Chief, Commercial Services Program, National Park Service