BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- The National Park Service next month will begin selling a $50 credit-card-style pass for admission to national parks nationwide that the agency hopes will raise millions of extra dollars.
Modeled after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's popular duck stamp program, the new collectible park pass is the centerpiece of an aggressive marketing campaign that officials hope will boost the constituency for national parks more than existing Golden Eagle Passports.
The marketing strategy calls for promoting the new pass not simply as an entrance pass, but also as a means of supporting the national park system. If Park Service projections are accurate, the new passes could generate $160 million for national parks over the next five years.
''Very honestly, we're trying to build a relationship with our visitors and give them a chance to contribute to the stewardship of the parks,'' said Dan Wenk, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and manager of the parks pass program.
The existing Golden Eagle passes, which allow admission to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management recreation areas as well as parks, will remain available. However, their price will increase from $50 to $65 when the new park passes go on sale April 18.
By paying the $15 difference, anyone buying a new parks pass also can buy a sticker that will upgrade the pass to the equivalent of a Golden Eagle.
While the National Park Service now sells about 200,000 Golden Eagle passes each year, the agency estimates aggressive marketing of the new collectible pass should generate sales of 485,000 passes in the first year.
The basic $20 entrance fee at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for infrequent visitors will not change.
A new national park photograph will be selected for the front of the card each year through a national competition like those held to choose annual duck stamps. The inaugural 2000 pass features a winter photograph of bison in Yellowstone by Jackson, Wyo., photographer Jeff Foote.
It even will carry a magnetic strip that visitors eventually might be able to swipe through electronic readers at automated gates, easing traffic at the entrances to busy parks like Yellowstone.
However, Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle noted that such automated gates still may be a few years away.
The Park Service, in cooperation with the nonprofit National Park Foundation, will sell the passes by telephone, over the Internet, at park entrance gates and stores, and in gateway communities and outdoor catalogs.
Each pass will come with an automobile decal, a map of all 379 national park units and a free subscription to a national park newsletter.
Parks that sell passes at their entrance gates will keep 70 percent of the proceeds, with the rest going to a national fund for park projects.
People who buy passes via the Internet or by telephone can have their names imprinted on the passes ''just like a credit card,'' Karle said. Buyers will even receive friendly reminders before their passes expire that it's time to buy new ones. Those who buy cards year after year will be recognized on their cards as a national park ''partner'' since the year they bought their first pass.
''Our market research indicates there is a big market out there of people who want to support their parks and this gives them a new opportunity to do that,'' Wenk said.
On the Net: National Parks Foundation: www.nationalparks.org
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