Baucus responds to Hill’s Glacier bill 

New legislation proposed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus would finance hotel and infrastructure repairs in Glacier National Park while leaving existing concession laws intact, aides say.

Baucus broached details of the bill last week. His proposal comes in response to similar legislation introduced in late May by Republicans Rep. Rick Hill and Sen. Conrad Burns.

The Republican bill calls for $200 million in federal funding to repair the park’s crumbling Going to the Sun Road, as well as $20 million for water, sewer and other infrastructure upgrades. Drawing fire in the GOP bill, however, is language that would potentially double the length of Glacier’s commercial operating season, along with the concessioner contract for running the park’s historic hotels. Critics say the bill also could allow room rates to dramatically increase and open the door for more damage to park resources through increased visitation. They note that some of the provisions directly contradict reforms made to national park concession laws in 1998.

Hill and Burns maintain their measures are necessary to allow the park’s main concessioner to adequately finance hotel repairs, which could top $100 million. Baucus, however, contends his plan will allow rehabilitation without giving special favors to Glacier Park Inc., which now holds the park’s main commercial contract.

Along with providing funding for Sun Road repairs and various infrastructure projects, Baucus’ bill would allocate $18 million for planning and construction of a new visitor center and $5 million to help surrounding communities mitigate impacts caused by park road restoration. Instead of extending concession contracts, the bill calls for setting up “historic lease financing” that would enable hotel operators to qualify for federal tax credits while repairs are being made. The leases could extend 40-50 years, but park seasons would not be changed.

The Democratic proposal, which calls for public involvement in all stages of the process, also directs the National Park Service to enter into partnerships with Flathead Valley Community College, Salish Kootenai College, and Blackfeet Community College to provide future training for a variety of park jobs. Also envisioned is collaboration with the National Academy of Sciences to complete a comprehensive analysis of Glacier’s “cultural, historical and natural resources.” A report on related park needs would then be forwarded to Congress for its consideration.

“He’s concerned [the Republican bill] is putting the cart ahead of the horse,” says Baucus legislative director Brian Kuehl. He adds that various loan guarantees are also being looked at as a way to fix the aging lodges.

“We’re trying to find a balance between public and private investment that works for the public,” Kuehl says.

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