Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same? How is the work divided? How are the sites managed? What do the different divisions do?
Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission. Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.
The Commercial Services Program administers concession contracts and commercial use authorizations (CUAs) in national parks. Concession contracts and CUAs are held by private businesses that operate authorized and contracted visitor services in units of the National Park System. These commercial operators play a vital role in helping the National Park Service (NPS) carry out its mission by providing hospitality, recreation, and retail services to park visitors. The current legislative authority for the program is the National Parks Omnibus Act of 1998. The NPS Washington Support Office (WASO) Commercial Services Program also administers the NPS Leasing Program in accordance with 36 CFR Part 17 and 18, which allows the NPS to lease federal lands and structures not necessary for park or visitor use.
Concessioners have provided visitor services in park areas for over 100 years. This relationship is one of the oldest and most successful public-private partnerships in the federal government. Concession operations in park areas existed prior to the NPS establishment in 1916. Many concession businesses began as trading posts, livery stables, way stations, dry goods stores, and resort destinations built by railroad companies to encourage travelers to seek out wilderness experiences in remote areas of the nation. Today, the Commercial Services Program administers more than 500 concession contracts in 110 parks, providing services ranging from lodging, food and beverage, retail, and marina operations to outdoor recreational activities such as rafting, dog sledding, horseback riding, boat tours, and more. In addition to these contracts, the Commercial Services Program administers almost 4,700 CUAs, under which companies provide a broad range of recreation services in parks—from bus tours to mountaineering. The Commercial Services Program also administers over 58 multiple-year leases.
The Commercial Service Business
The Commercial Services Program oversees a large revenue-generating program in the national parks. In 2012, gross revenues earned under all concession contracts totaled more than $1.14 billion. In exchange for the opportunity to operate in parks, concessioners pay franchise fees to the government, and in 2012, franchise fees totaled more than $70.5 million. Eighty percent of all franchise fee dollars remain in the park where they are generated. Twenty percent is returned to WASO where it is used to manage servicewide support programs and projects. A portion is also distributed to parks for special park needs, like purchasing the concessioner’s investment in properties prior to new concession contracts. Concessioners contributed an additional $12.9 million in special account fees and $18.3 million in repair and maintenance funds to maintain and protect park concession structures. Concessioners broaden the economic base of the region and communities surrounding parks by hiring and training more than 25,000 seasonal employees each year.
The Commercial Services Program consists of approximately 150 personnel located in parks, regional offices, and the Washington office. Commercial Services staff develop concessions prospectuses; review competitive offers; develop contracts, CUAs, and leases; oversee facilities and operations; develop and oversee asset management plans; conduct evaluations and monitor operational and contract performance; check concession rates; and help ensure that operators provide safe, high-quality visitor services while protecting parks’ natural and cultural resources.
Stephen T. Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service, said, “Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to the tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful night’s sleep on an impossible bed.” The Commercial Services Program helps ensure quality visitor services to help facilitate visitor enjoyment of the parks.
NPS and Commercial Services Working Together
Commercial Services support the NPS mission by providing hospitality, recreation, and retail services to enhance the visitors’ stay in parks. Franchise fees help fund park operations. NPS operations in turn, also support commercial visitor services in the following ways:
- Interpretive staff provides orientation and skills training for concession staff
- Maintenance crews maintain park-managed utilities that serve concession facilities
- Park sanitarians and NPS Public Health Officer conduct food, beverage, water, and wastewater inspections of concessioner operations
- The park’s safety officer collaborates with concession safety staff to address safety issues
- Park’s green team personnel work with concession environmental management personnel to implement programs to reduce park and concession environmental impact
- Visitor resource protection provides medical and emergency services to concession guests and staff
- Cultural resources staff assist with compliance in historic buildings
- Natural resources staff assist with integrated pest management in concession facilities
- Administrative staff prepares draft agreements, contracts, permits, franchise fees, etc.
Issues and Challenges
Many issues and challenges face national parks in the future. The NPS must plan now to keep pace with increasing park visitation, visitor expectations, and changing demographics.
- Commercial Services Buildings and Services – As structures, roads, and utility lines age, more funds and work will be needed to maintain them. Planning and compliance must be completed for repairs and improvements. If new buildings, lodging and parking lots are needed, vegetation and wildlife as well as park’s water supply and sewage treatment facilities may be impacted. New services and sales items should reflect the NPS mission.
- Sustainability and Environmental Impact – The NPS has a responsibility in being a good steward of the environment. Increasing numbers of commercial services are embracing green initiatives by recycling trash, lowering energy consumption (and emitting less carbon), reusing cooking oil for alternative fuels, eliminating plastic water bottles, etc. Concessioner environmental programs should be integrated into park greening efforts.