Can Private Management Keep State Parks Open In California?

The San Francisco Chronicle addressed the issue of private management of public parks last week.  Unfortunately, despite the author’s stated goal of helping to answer questions about this approach, the article only interviewed people without any knowledge or experience with private park management and seemed to engage in some really wild speculation.  Here is the letter I wrote to the author

I was surprised at the tone of your article on December 15, titled “Private Funds or California Public Parks Questioned,” particularly the implication that private operation of public parks is somehow new and untried, thereby justifying wild speculation on its outcomes.  In fact, over 500 public parks in California are already operated privately, with examples of successful public-private partnerships that date back over 30 years.

This paragraph, which I presume is your private editorializing since it is not attributed to any source, struck me as particularly over-wrought

The question is, how will these agreements work over time? If parks remain open using donations, what is the incentive for legislators to put money for parks in the general fund budget? And who is going to stop a rich crook or pot dealer from taking a park off the closure list and using it for fiendish pursuits?\

I understand that the California State Parks system engenders deep loyalty and affection.  And if the state were proposing to entrust these vital public assets to some crazy, untried system, I suppose such hyperbolic language (“fiendish pursuits”?) might be justified.

But private management of public park operations was pioneered in California at least three decades ago by the US Forest Service.  The USFS has created a process in which the government still excercises the strictest control of park facilities, quality, fees, and access while harnessing the lower costs and innovation of private operators.  Numerous public agencies, including large park systems like the East Bay Regional Park District and the Metropolitan Water District, have used variations of this model, such that over 500 public parks are managed privately in this state alone.  You have likely been to one and never knew it.  That is because they look no different than the parks run by California State parks  — they don’t have condos or a McDonalds or billboards or anything that it is sometimes supposed private operators might build on public land.

What these parks do have is well-maintained facilities and very reasonable fees.  The facilities are well maintained because they must be by contractual obligation — they are not dependent on the vagaries of the appropriation process for their maintenance.  The reasonable fees are due to substantially lower operations costs.  Just as an example, California State Parks charges $30 a night for a no hookup camp site.  Very similar campgrounds in California in the National Forest that are operated by private companies never charge more than $22 a night for the same site, and often charge less than $20.

Our company, among many others, have operated public parks for decades.  The key is an intelligent division of responsibilities.  The public agencies we work with retain control over facility changes, conditions, fees, services offered, etc.  Companies like ours pay for all the operations, from insurance to staffing to maintenance to utilities, and pay for this solely with the gate fees already paid at the park, generally without any public subsidies.  The success of this model in keeping parks open can be seen in the US Forest Service.  The US Forest Service in California has seen its recreation budgets cut far more than have the budgets of California State parks, but in general the USFS is not talking about park closures.  They have found a more sustainable financial model for recreation operations.

Even in California State Parks, this is not a radically new idea.  While there are no California State Parks whose entire operations are managed privately today, private companies do operate large portions of a number of parks.  The conference center at Asilomar SP, the cabins at Big Redwoods Basin and Burney Falls, the stores and marinas at dozens of parks, and the tours at the Hearst Castle, are all operated privately under the close supervision of California State Parks.  And in these cases, no one expresses serious fears of Asilomar harboring drug dealers or Hearst Castle being operated for fiendish pursuits.  In fact, more than any other state in the nation, California already has the expertise and infrastructure in place to manage a private park operations program.

Remember, we are not talking about handing parks over to private entities to do with as they please  — these are highly structured relationships that substantially reduce costs because private operators can clean the bathrooms and do the landscape maintenance and staffing far less expensively than a public agency.

There are plenty of public public officials and private companies that can discuss this park operation model in more depth.  I would love the chance to discuss it with you in more depth, and there are plenty of public public officials and private companies who could demystify this for you.  And I don’t think any of us are pot dealers.