I was asked to write a 400-word essay for an outdoor magazine on “should national parks be privatized”. Here my response. By the way, I put the stuff about myself and my company in under duress. It was not in the original draft and he wanted something personal.
Should National Park’s be privatized, in the sense that they are turned entirely over to private owners? No. Public lands are in public hands for a reason — the public wants the government, not, say, Ritz-Carlton, to decide the use and character and access to the land. No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a common fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned.
However, once the agency determines the character of and facilities on the land, should their operation (as opposed to their ownership) be privatized? Sure. The NPS faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance. It is crazy to use its limited budget to have Federal civil service employees cleaning bathrooms and manning the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job so much less expensively. The US Forest Service, for example, has had private operators in over a thousand of its largest parks for nearly thirty years, and unlike state parks agencies or even the NPS, it is not considering park closures or accumulating deferred maintenance, despite having its recreation budget axed. Why? Because its partnership program with private operators is a fundamentally sounder, lower-cost approach to park operations.
In fact, such public-private partnerships are nothing new for the NPS. The NPS was an early innovator in this field, and currently private companies operate many of the visitor services in parks, such as lodges and gift shops. The US Forest Service innovation, which has been copied by many agencies including most recently California State Parks, has been to turn over operations of the whole park, not just the lodge, to a private company. These are highly structured contracts, wherein the private company cannot modify the facilities or change fees without agency approval, and must meet a range of detailed performance goals.
Most critiques of private park operations center around quality and fees. While there certainly have been some isolated failures, in general the results have been quite good. In Arizona, a recent poll by CampArizona.com ranked the top 10 public campgrounds in Arizona. Of these, three of the top five were US Forest Service campgrounds run by a private operator, as was the top Arizona campground in Sunset Magazine’s “Best of the West” (OK, I have to brag, these are all run by my company). As for fee concerns, state-run parks in California charge $30 for a no-hookup camp site. Privately operated public campgrounds in California forests seldom charge more than $18.
My company operates over 150 state, county, and federal parks. I encourage you to take the “Pepsi Challenge” and see some of them for yourself. They are well-run, generally with more staff than a typical state park, and have no significant deferred maintenance backlog. Oh, and not a single one has a McDonald’s, a billboard, or a neon sign in front of a national monument.