As the Christie administration considers privatizing New Jersey’s state parks and forests in order to keep them open and run more efficiently in tough budget times, environmental groups say the public could lose access to the open spaces if private vendors or corporations move in.
“The [DEP] commissioner said they were going to keep parks open, but with those kinds of [budget] cuts I don’t know how they are going to be able to run programs or have services at our parks,” said Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. “These lands were bought by the public for public use and when you start privatizing it can change the hold dynamic on how we use or visit our parks.”
Tittel said private operators would potentially be under no obligation to guarantee public access.
“There’s a difference between having outsiders come in and let’s say run a concession stand like hot dogs or kayaking and things like that, versus actually managing the parks because they are going to be managing for a profit,” he said. “What we’ve seen happen in other states is that services go down and fees go up, and public use gets pushed to the side.”
Again, we see someone hypothesizing harms from public-private partnerships in recreation without ever having actually, you know, checked to see how it works in practice. In reality, well-managed public-private recreation partnerships almost never fulfill these fears, though I will say these are the standard bogeymen trotted out whenever the privatization concept is raised. Most of these issues are addressed in this FAQ, but a few quick thoughts:
- Our company has 30 recreation operations contracts. We don’t have a single one that allows us to change services, facilities or fees without the written permission of the parks agency
- In a number of states, including Arizona and California, we operate facilities side-by-side with public agencies and in nearly every case, the fees we charge for similar facilities are lower than those of the state agency. For example, in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona State Parks charges $20 per vehicle to park at Slide Rock Park while right next door we charge between $8 and $10 at US Forest Service parks. In California, standard State Park camping fees have risen to $30 for a site without utilities, while we charge no camping fee for a similar site higher than $18 at any of the facilities we operate.
- At the end of the day, our company can run facilities to the same quality level much less expensively than can the civil service bureaucracy of most states. Many folks who only deal with public management are unused to thinking in terms of productivity increases, and so assume reduced costs can only be obtained with decreased services. While this is true in government jobs dominated by public sector unions that resist productivity increases, it is not true of the private sector.
I have run the numbers on New Jersey parks, and run their facilities and revenues through our costing models, and there are a number that may soon be closed that we could easily keep open without public subsidies — ie operate them within current fees collected. One false assumptions embodied in this piece may be a vision that privatization means complete takeover of the public parks organization. In fact, though, in public-private partnerships, the public sector retains many responsibilities, and is only privatizing operational tasks. Here is a picture of the typical public-private partnership in recreation: