MISSOULA — A new bill, co-sponsored by US Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), will direct the Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service to work more closely with "gateway communities" to address the impacts of exploding interest in outdoor recreation.
Last summer, Daines and his colleagues on the Senate's National Parks Subcommittee dove headfirst into the issue of traffic clogging parks, especially the boom since the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. The hearing showed the problems' complexity — especially on the towns neighboring Glacier, Yellowstone as well as other federal public use areas.
Now, Daines, and US Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of Maine are introducing the Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act.
"And so what this bill is doing is recognizing that we've got a housing shortage for park employees. And frankly in some cases becoming a crisis," Daines told MTN News on Wednesday. "So this is really a first step in a bipartisan way to look at engaging the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to start identifying these problems and putting a task force together."
"Because we've got a limited amount of land and we've got to figure out a way here to make sure we've got housing that's affordable for employees. That's a really important starting point," Daines continued.
While developers in Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, West Yellowstone and others are adding some housing units, the demand now is crushing the vacancy rates for not only workers inside the parks, but the service industries catering to all the tourists.
Daines says the bill doesn't offer funding now, but calls on the federal agencies to work with local governments, and share critical data on visitor trends.
"And so we want to really clearly identify the specifics on the problem. What are some specific actions to be taken for solutions and that then would be a follow-up bill we look at the actual funding requirements that are going to be needed. It's going to take money to fix these problems. But let's not go throw a bunch of money at it until we first understand the problem and we spend that money wisely." - SU Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT)
It also directs the agencies to explore ways to spread out the crowds.
"In Montana we have other great national parks that sometimes when people come to our state they aren't aware of. You know, the Grant Kohrs National Park for example, outside of Deer Lodge," Daines pointed out. "And how do we help kind of smooth out the crowds a bit so that not everybody showing up the same time. Our amusement parks have figured that out with crowds to help kind of smooth that out to a point."
"We've got to be smarter around how we handle the fact that we love our national parks. We love having visitors come to our parks, but want to maintain a great experience. We want have to find a better way to address the crowding situation and, importantly, address the issue of affordable employee housing. Because without the staff we're not going to have great experiences in our national parks."
Follow this link to read a full version of the bill.