Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, Nov. 22, on national park fee hikes
America’s national parks have fallen into neglect and disrepair after decades of underfunding of their upkeep and operations.
The National Park Service estimates that the 417 National Parks need $11.3 billion in deferred maintenance. That backlog is evident in Yellowstone National Park where popular trails remain closed for years for lack of money to rebuild, where roads wear out much faster than they are repaved and where a recent 40 percent increase in visitors brought virtually no increase in restrooms, parking, road capacity or visitor centers.
The Trump administration proposed a federal budget that would slash NPS funding, including cutting 1,200 employees and reducing deferred maintenance by $34 million, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Last month, the administration announced that it would tackle the park maintenance backlog — by raising entrance fees at 17 of the most popular parks, including Yellowstone and Glacier.
According to the NPS, the plan outlined would raise about $70 million a year in revenue. That’s not enough to take a bite out of the $11.3 billion backlog. It wouldn’t even keep the backlog from growing.
A bipartisan group of 12 senators (none from Montana or Wyoming) introduced a bill in March that would authorize using $500 million in oil and gas revenues for park maintenance every year through 2047. That’s the size of investment needed to reduce the backlog and preserve these national treasures for our children.
The National Park Service Legacy Act ought to become law, but it hasn’t even had a hearing yet in the committee chaired by Montana Sen. Steve Daines.
Unpopular as a fee increase is, Yellowstone and Glacier need the resources to handle the surge in visitors. For the safety of visitors, the quality of their park experience and the preservation of historic and natural wonders, NPS must have money to shrink the maintenance backlog.
A peak-season fee increase can be justified only if all of the proceeds stay in the park where it’s collected. The Interior Department proposed 20 percent would be used in other parks. Diverting any more entrance fee money from the park where it’s collected is unacceptable. Every one of the 17 parks on the fee increase list has needs that greatly outstrip what the proposed fee increase would cover.
However, considering the dire need to maintain our parks, a peak-season fee increase is reasonable if:
— It’s less than the proposed $40 per private vehicle and set with public input
— 100 percent of collections stays in the park where collected
— Peak-fee funded projects are publicly identified
— The peak-fee money is strictly accounted for
— Peak-season fees aren’t used to supplant federal funding
— Fee-free days are offered and publicized
Park visitors now pay $30 per private vehicle for a seven-day pass to Yellowstone. The NPS proposal would raise that to $70 starting in May 2018. That’s too soon and too steep.
Along with the private vehicle fee increase during peak season, NPS proposed raising fees charged for visitors who come to the parks on commercial tours starting in 2019. The estimate of $70 million in peak season fee revenue includes $18 million from commercial tours, according to an NPS spokesperson.
The NPS proposal notes that commercial tour entrance fees haven’t been raised since 1998 when they were first implemented under a federal law enacted a few years earlier.
Fees charged by tour operators certainly have increased since 1998. The tour business is booming in Yellowstone. In 2016, the number of buses entering the park doubled and bus tours increased again this year.
The National Park Service set a too-short comment period — scheduled to end on Thanksgiving Day. The comment period was extended for 30 days, according to Daines’ office, after he requested an extension.
Yellowstone and the other great Western parks need maintenance money now. Fees can help with a sliver of the need; Congress must act on the rest.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Nov. 21, on more safety at Montana State University fraternities and sororities
Montana State University suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity earlier this month following the hospitalization of a female student who suffered alcohol poisoning at a party at the SAE house. MSU officials also launched an investigation into the incident, which may have also involved illegal drug use and underage drinking.
And now the fraternity’s national organization has stepped in, ordering the MSU chapter to cease all fraternity-related social, philanthropic and recruitment activities pending the conclusion of its and MSU’s investigations.
The situation here follows high-profile national stories involving fraternities, including:
- Four students died in heavy drinking episodes this year at Florida State University, Texas State University, Louisiana State University and Penn State University.
- Ohio State University has suspended almost all its fraternities citing ongoing investigations into hazing and alcohol violations.
- The University of West Florida suspended two Greek organizations over hazing incidents there.
And those are just the ones that make the national news.
These cases are not rarities. In 2014, six young men died nationally in fraternity hazing and drinking episodes; seven died in a single year two years before that. Is it just a matter of time before a tragedy happens at MSU?
In addition to the recent case, a second student required medical attention after drinking at the MSU SAE house a few weeks ago. And this is the second time SAE has faced suspension in the last couple of years. In 2015, similar action was taken when students were injured in SAE-sponsored off-campus parties.
The suspension means SAE cannot take part in any fraternity events and cannot host any events with alcohol. And students who attend any events at the SAE house risk discipline under the student code of conduct.
But perhaps it’s time a louder message was sent.
Why shouldn’t MSU issue strict guidelines on when and how limited amounts of alcohol can be served at events hosted by university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities? Violations of those guidelines should be met with harsh penalties, up to and including expulsion from the university for individual violators. Any violations of the law — underage drinking, illegal drug use, driving under the influence — should be referred immediately to city law enforcement officials for prosecution.
And the onus should be on the fraternities to police themselves. MSU has an Interfraternity Council that should appoint — hire if necessary — monitors that visit frat houses regularly to ensure the guidelines are being followed.
Fraternities and sororities have a long tradition in academia, and eliminating them from campus life would be a drastic measure. But if an MSU student or students end up dead, will we be looking back and asking ourselves what could have been done?
Daily Inter Lake, Nov. 19, on the Montana special session
Just as some college students seem to work best under the pressure of a drop-dead deadline, the Montana Legislature pulled the equivalent of a caffeinated all-nighter last week and turned in a budget-crisis solution that deserves high grades.
First and foremost, in trying to find a way to backfill the $227 million shortfall in the state budget, the Legislature somehow managed to avoid raising taxes — anywhere! Considering how easy it is to spend other people’s money, color us shocked. As Sen. Bob Keenan told the Inter Lake Thursday, “It’s ... a minor miracle that it all came together.”
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock had initially proposed about $75 million each in tax increases, temporary budget cuts and transfers from specific state accounts into the general and firefighting funds. The Republican-majority Legislature accepted the cuts, and went one step further — making them permanent with House Bill 2.
The rest proved to be a bit more tricky. The Republicans rejected tax increases on rental cars, hotels or anything else, and set to work looking for revenue sources. What they came up with was a creative mix of transfers, IOU’s and arm-twisting.
The most interesting piece of the puzzle came about by leveraging about $30 million in proceeds if the governor negotiates an agreement to extend for 10 years the contract of CoreCivic, which manages a private prison in Shelby.
“We can’t negotiate a prison contract,” House Speaker Austin Knudsen said before the special session began. “But we can incentivize the governor to take a look.”
According to The Associated Press, if the governor does not place $15 million of that money in the state fire fund by next June, the bill triggers further reductions to state agencies. That’s a stick over the governor’s head, but the carrot is that, should the state’s finances improve, the prison bill sets terms for saving some of the money and reversing some of the cuts and transfers.
Meanwhile, Bullock has said he intends to veto legislation that would furlough executive branch employees at a savings of $15 million. He must think that won’t leave the state in the red. We will wait and see. There’s not a lot of wiggle room — and by the way, let’s hope the economy doesn’t go south, or the next “special” session could be just a few months away.