in CongressDaily, a division of National Journal PEOPLE

Happy Camper

Monday, July 26, 2010

Capitol Hill veteran Bob Weiner is passionate about national parks: His favorite job was toting gear for campers in New Hampshire's White Mountains as a college student, he proposed to his wife on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and he bought a house near Piscataway Park in Maryland so he could run on the trails.

The longtime press secretary who now runs a public relations firm, Robert Weiner Associates, has a new mission: make all the parks free again.

"Federal taxes pay for our federal lands; we shouldn't have to pay for them twice," Weiner and one of his firm's interns, Jonathan Battaglia, wrote in an op-ed published this month in the Arizona Republic. "Waive entrance fees permanently."

Congress authorized the National Park Service to charge admission fees in 1996, provided that 80 percent of the money is used at the site where it is collected.

The fees now raise about $178 million annually, the equivalent of about 50 cents a year per American if the money came from general tax revenues, Weiner said. He believes most people would prefer to pay for the parks that way, and have free access. "It's the idea that nature belongs to all of us," he said.

Park Service officials report that since the recession began in 2007, attendance has been declining in parks that collect entrance fees, Weiner said. Overall, park visits have been rising, he said, but only because the agency includes attendance at free sites, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in the figures.

"Waiving entrance fees would not only motivate people to visit parks, but it would also stimulate local economies," he and Battaglia wrote in their op-ed.

Weiner said his love for the outdoors may be "an escape from New Jersey," where he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. His obsession began at the Blair Academy, where he pressured the headmaster to list Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as a recommended place for alumni and visitors to stay.

After graduation, Weiner became student coordinator for the 1970 Senate campaign of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., which led him to become the Democratic Party's first national youth vote coordinator in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Weiner later became a legislative aide to former Rep. Edward Koch, D-N.Y.; staff director for the House Aging Committee under the late Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Fla.; press secretary for the House Narcotics Committee under Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; and communications director for the House Government Operations Committee under Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.

by Mike Magner