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Jan 20th
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Home Travel Tips & Guides Illegal Tour Operators a Problem for National Parks, Visitors

Illegal Tour Operators a Problem for National Parks, Visitors

Park Service Says Difficult to Oversee or Discover Unauthorized Guides

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They may not look like crooks, and their motivations even may be well intentioned, but illegal tour operators are a problem for the National Park Service, and when things go bad it is usually the park visitor who ends up impacted.

"It is an ongoing issue for us," Jo A. Pendry, chief of the National Park Service Concession Program, told OldWestNewWest.Com. "And it is really a difficult thing for our parks to oversee or discover."
While the problem of illegal tour operators can happen at any of the National Park System's 391 areas, at least two parks in the West recently have had incidents.

"At Zion National Park in Utah, for example, we have unearthed some illegal activity," Pendry said. "The problem is that there are so many entrances, and so much of the (Virgin) River to watch."

Then there was the case of an illegal tour operator who not only was caught, but was prosecuted.

On July 14, 2007, rangers at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado were alerted to a possible illegal commercial tour operator giving a tour of the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to four visitors. A visitor told rangers something didn't look right.

When asked, one of the visitors told a ranger that they had paid about $100 for the tour. Upon being contacted, the tour operator gave rangers his name and identified himself as the manager of a tour company.

Rangers said the man possessed a Colorado state Luxury Limousine Certificate for his vehicle, which he said allowed him to conduct tours for hire throughout the entire state of Colorado. He also claimed that he had been a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, and as such, was aware of no other permits that he needed to conduct business within Mesa Verde National Park. His tour was stopped by rangers.

Investigation revealed that the man hoped to make well over $35,000 over the summer through bookings on his Web site, which touted itself as "the premier and professional archeological/ruins tour company," of which "Each tour is Ranger Led and each guide has over 20 years of experience in National Park tours, guiding, and customer service."

Actually, the man was the sole employee, and many of his tours originated inside of the park where funds exchanged hands. The man had never been a park ranger, but had been an interpretive Volunteer-in-Parks for six weeks at Tusayan Museum at Grand Canyon National Park in 2005 before being let go, the National Park Service said.

According to officials, on Dec. 21, 2007, after numerous pretrial agreements and a failed motion to suppress evidence based on Miranda rights, the man pleaded guilty to failing to pay required fees, engaging in business operations in park areas not in accordance with a permit or contract, and providing false information for his claim of having been a National Park Service park ranger.

The man was sentenced to 60 days in jail, suspended, contingent on certain conditions, including being banned from Mesa Verde National Park for three years, and all National Park Service units for one year.

Had the man's scheme succeeded, the National Park Service said, it is estimated that he stood to make about $1,000 per day, every day, during the four-month summer season.

According to Jessie Farias, Chief Ranger of Visitor and Resource Protection at Mesa Verde National Park, this was the second case of illegal commercial use prosecuted by Mesa Verde National Park in as many years. In both incidents, tour operators made extensive use of Internet Web sites to advertise and book tours.

"The other case was somewhat similar," Farias told OldWestNewWest.Com. "They were not providing tours, but it was a bike-tour operation, and (park visitors) paid a lot of money."

The woman involved in the illegal tour operation plead guilty, Farias said, and did pay a fine.

So why is the issue of illegal tour operations important to the park service?

Obviously, there is the matter of concessionaire and commercial use fees that are paid to the federal government. But in addition, there is the issue of whether the concessionaire is qualified to do the job, has the proper equipment, and is knowledgeable.

"There is a lot of misinformation that might be put out by an illegal tour operator," Farias said. "That's why Mesa Verde National Park, and a lot of other parks, provide free training. If authorized companies are going to be providing tours, the park will invite the guides to come and take training at no charge to them. Every spring we do it, for up to a week."

Basically, there are two types of vendors who provide services to park visitors, Pendry said.

"First, there is the concessionaire, where the work they do begins inside the park," she said. "Second, there is the commercial use authorization permit where the operator has a business operating outside of the park and brings people inside the park. The work they do begins and ends outside the park."

Pendry said that if it is a large concessionaire, all of their materials will say that they are an authorized concessionaire.

"For smaller operators, such as maybe they're bringing a horse trip inside the park, many times they also will say that they are authorized by the National Park Service to be doing the job they are doing," she added.

Bottom line, she said, the National Park Service has a responsibility, and a duty to the millions of visitors who enjoy the parks each year.

"I know if I was a visitor I would ask if the person was authorized to be doing what they're doing. If the visitor feels uncomfortable about the operator, the visitor can call us, or go on the Internet to the park Web site to check," she said.