The Unsustainability of Free Public Camping

Secretary of Interior Zincke has proposed more private operation of Department of Interior campgrounds.   As readers of this blog would expect, I think this is a good idea.  However, many critiques have been raised of late.  One example is this one from the Rebecca Moss of the New Mexican claiming that “many fear” that private operations of public campgrounds will cause their rates to “skyrocket.”  This is part of a letter I wrote her in response (my company was mentioned in the article but was not contacted by her for comment on the story).

Pretty much no one that I know of is advocating for a full privatization of public campgrounds.  It is not what we do, certainly.   We privatize the operation of public campgrounds, which is different in important ways, as described here:  http://parkprivatization.com/2012/09/essay-response-should-national-parks-be-privatized/I don’t mind folks being skeptical of things I am passionate about, but I do think this bit of your article was deceptive.  Let me quote it in full:

Private companies are contractually obligated to maintain the properties they operate in national parks. But the Center for American Progress found this doesn’t always happen. Instead, the organization said, some private companies have skirted these obligations and instead further added to the backlog of maintenance for which taxpayers are responsible.

All but one of New Mexico’s national parks had hundreds of thousands of dollars in deferred maintenance as of 2016, totaling more than $213 million, according to National Park Service documents. Carlsbad Caverns National Park has the highest backlog, with $44 million in deferred maintenance, about half for a modernized elevator system. Of the overall total, $16 million in maintenance is considered critical, according to the federal budget. The backlog at Bandelier National Monument is $23 million and it’s $17 million at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

The implication is that the second paragraph follows from the first, that these are examples of private companies not keeping up with regular maintenance in parks, but in fact this is untrue.  These are examples of the public agency not keeping up with deferred maintenance.  In fact, the deferred maintenance in privately-operated public facilities tends to be way lower than in publicly operated facilities

The reason the government can charge low fees for camping is in part because these fees do not cover the full costs of operating these camping areas. Oddly, in the same article you sort of brag about low public camping fees in NM while complaining about the amount of deferred maintenance, but you never connect the two.  Have you ever seen a free BLM campground after the campers leave? The cleaning and trash pick-up bill alone is enormous. That is why we get deferred maintenance in public campgrounds, because use fees do not cover the full costs or operation and maintenance while budget appropriations have fallen and the difference is made up by not fixing things. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently estimated the total deferred maintenance at state and Federal parks at $114 billion. Our company operates a number of Forest Service campgrounds in New Mexico and across the country — the total deferred maintenance for which we are responsible at these locations is essentially zero.

This deferred maintenance issue in publicly-operated parks is made worse by the administrative bloat in public agencies.  Rather than use the money they have to provide services on the ground for visitors, much of their budget goes to off-site administrative staff.  My company has 350 employees, two of which are not located in a park (one of whom is me).  Arizona State Parks, which I have studied, has about the same number of employees but over half sit in off-site offices away from parks. Even when these agencies get more appropriated money, they spend it on more administrative staff and not on working down their maintenance backlog.  Well over 90% of the money our company collects in fees gets spent right back in the park itself — no government agency can say that.  Even the concession fees we pay to the government generally go back into the park in the form of capital improvements due to the smart structure of US Forest Service concession agreements.  And when government budget crunch time hits and park funds get swept up into the general fund for other purposes, fees paid to private operators are protected and still go to the parks.

I would distrust private companies to fully control the character and access of parks.  Given a choice, if I had a really nice piece of public land, I might make more money turning it into an exclusive Ritz Carlton resort.  But that is not how these contracts work.  The government retains control of the development and character of its concession-operated parks, so Forest Service campgrounds are always going to be a lightly-developed in a natural setting with total public access for all.  Given that, what we are talking about is whether the bathrooms are cleaned by efficient private companies or by civil service employees with large expensive administrative staffs.

In California, the state parks agency operates its own campgrounds and charges $35 a night (soon to go up I hear) for a primitive campsite without any utilities.  My company operates many public campgrounds in California, many right next door to state parks, and we charge no more than $24 a night and often less for the same site.  And we receive no subsidy of any sort, while California State Parks also gets $400 million or so of taxpayer money in addition to their fees.  And we have no deferred maintenance, while California State Parks have deferred maintenance of $1.2 billion growing at $120 million a year (an older estimate but still probably close to the mark).

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