National Parks

It's Time To Let Somebody Competent Run National Parks (Hint: Private Enterprise)


National Park Service
U.S. Government

The federal government has demonstrated the astounding ability to deal with its budget crunch by closing profitable operations like national parks, and thereby drown itself in red ink on its "money-saving" efforts. That's right, closing the national parks cost about $450,000 in lost entrance fees and rentals, every day. That's watching the bottom line, government-style. But even at the best of times, the federal government has proven itself a good steward of the national parks only when it lets somebody else do the work. Given the track record of government management of parks, and of parks managed by private contractors, maybe it's time to relieve the feds of a burden to which they've proven themselves inadequate.

This isn't a revolutionary idea. It's not even a new idea. A big part of the reason the federal government lost money by closing Park Service facilities is that thousands of them are leased to private managers that pay the feds for the privilege and turn a profit on the arrangement. Yes, it takes a special talent to turn that into a money-loser.

In a case study for the Property and Environment Research Center, Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, which operates park facilities under contract, contrasts his experience with that of public managers.

People are often surprised at how expensive it can be to operate a public park. it's just a piece of open land, right? But public parks require a tremendous amount of labor for tasks such as cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash, and mowing the lawn. everything from buildings to trails to barbeque grills requires constant maintenance under the onslaught of heavy use in a popular area. Beyond the labor costs, utility bills must be paid, insurance must be purchased, and equipment such as trucks must be bought and maintained.

Public agencies can quickly become overwhelmed, particularly by labor costs, which can make up more than 80 percent of their expenses. …

As a result, even when public agencies charge entry fees (Arizona State Parks charge $10 per vehicle for most of its parks), these fees typically cover only about half of their operating costs. The rest must be
made up from state general funds—funds that are increasingly in short supply. As state governments take on bigger and more expensive tasks, such as providing health care, money for parks is often squeezed.

Meyer compares state-managed Red Rock State Park, in Arizona, to Crescent Moon Ranch, located on federal land and managed by his company (both parks are down the road from me). "Both units should have roughly the same operating costs," he notes. "In reality, the state-operated Red Rock Park costs more than twice as much to operate."

Admittedly, Meyer has a vested interest in portraying private park management in a good light, but his operation at Crescent Moon was one that the National Park Service had to force closed because there was no logical reason to shutter an operation that operated independent of D.C. budget shenanigans. (The closure caused such chaos that the Coconino County Sheriff's Office cut the cable at the gate and let people into the facility, from which the operating staff were still banned by the NPS.)

Testifying before the Senate Commitee on Energy and Natural Resources in July, PERC research fellow (and former NPS ranger) Shawn Regan urged lawmakers to expand such private management of national parks, to increase local autonomy for park managers so that they're not micromanaged from the central office, and to reauthorize the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), which lets parks keep the money they collect at the gates instead of sending it to D.C. to be reallocated by Congress and sent back.

Of course, private management and local control won't insulate parks and their patrons from politicians looking to inflict pain on the public just to demonstrate how much we need the federal government. That will require another fix entirely.

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  1. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

  2. Is there not some tension between these two selections?

    -That’s right, closing the national parks cost about $450,000 in lost entrance fees and rentals, every day. That’s watching the bottom line, government-style.

    -People are often surprised at how expensive it can be to operate a public park. it’s just a piece of open land, right? But public parks require a tremendous amount of labor for tasks such as cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash, and mowing the lawn. everything from buildings to trails to barbeque grills requires constant maintenance under the onslaught of heavy use in a popular area.

    1. Now that the padlocks are off of the bathrooms, everybody can see just how “clean” they actually are.

    2. “That’s right, closing the national parks cost about $450,000 in lost entrance fees and rentals, every day. That’s watching the bottom line, government-style.”

      If losing $450,000 in revenue every day is a “cost”, then what’s the “cost” of not selling the park off to the highest bidder?

      Keeping parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone on the government books must be “costing” us billions and billions of dollars!

      1. Oh, and how much environmentally sensitive land could be saved–if only the government sold off the financially self-sustaining parks and gave the tens of billions of dollars those sales generated to a charitable institution that wanted to buy environmentally sensitive land at market prices just to protect it?

  3. Why do they have to be parks? Open them to homesteading and let the new owners decide what a park is.

    1. I don’t think that would be the highest use. The highest use is recreational.

      It’s kind of sad, too, because one of the justifications for having the parks is to make them available to people of all income levels, but whenever I’m in the major parks (which is every year and frequently during the summer) most of the people there are either relatively wealthy Americans (those that can afford an RV) and foreign tourists.

      By keeping camping fees low (I camped in Zion for $15 a night), they’re mostly just keeping the cost down for relatively wealthy people.

      Aren’t you taxpayer glad I can roll up in my sweet bike and only pay $15 a night for the most beautiful campground I’ve ever seen anywhere? Hey, don’t yell at me! You’re keeping the price down so that inner-city kids can spend the summer camping with their parents!

      Meanwhile, the big parks are booked out months in advance–just try to book a campsite for June, July, or August in Yosemite some time after March. Any operator would expand the number of campsites available–and charge a market rate for them.

      Places like Yosemite are a cash cow, or, rather, they would be a cash cow if they were operated competently. They might not generate as much cash flow as Disneyland, but then they might. They’d certainly generate more cash than Sea World.

      1. Ken Shultz|10.16.13 @ 8:34PM|#
        “I don’t think that would be the highest use. The highest use is recreational.”

        Uh, that would be for the owner to decide.

        1. “Highest use” is like commercial real estate jargon.

          For my purposes, the “highest use” is the one that generates the most cash flow. You could turn Disneyland into a golf course and sell condos along the fairways, but that probably isn’t the highest use of that land.

          1. Incidentally, I bet Disney’s parks division would be thrilled to take over Yosemite.

            I bet they’d be one of the highest bidders. They could certainly get it financed.

          2. That doesn’t change anything seeing as how the government shouldn’t be the proprietor of the land in the first place.

            1. Point was that people are generally loath to move assets into a class with a lesser use. That’s what making people pay the highest price is all about. Having to pay the highest price helps ensure that the land will have the highest use, and the billions consumers from all over the world spend to come visit our national parks every year–and all the infrastructure around that–isn’t about to disappear and make any semi-rational owner do something to jeopardize their cash flow. …especially if they’ve financed a huge purchase.

              In regards to the rest, if you want to move those assets from the government’s hands to private hands, there are some steps we have to take. Do you want to privatize the land or not?

              There are a lot of people out there who live in a fantasy world built around the way the world should be. Some of them call themselves “Objectivists”. I live in the real world, where things aren’t as they should be–but we can do things to make them better.

              I mean, WTF is anybody supposed to do about how the government never should have had the land in the first place?

              It does have the land. Now what?

  4. Tuccille, don’t you have a book to be pimping, with some mention of NPS employees trying to punish people, among other things?

  5. Every time someone mentions privatizing the parks all the enviro-tard lefties freakout and start screaming things like:

    “OMG!!!! Private parks! They’ll be named after Enron and McDonalds, and there will be billboards and advertising all over them! And PROFITS will be made!!! ”

    So, in due consideration of the fact that people are retards, I suggest that the National Park Service be spun off into a semi-private agency like the United States Postal Service.

    Baby steps people.

    1. They also like to talk about how much they love that the PUBLIC lands belong to the PUBLIC, and ANYONE can use them.

      Nevermind that when the government shuts down, the government locks the public out of said public lands.

      1. But Government is the only thing we all belong to!

        Just like Public Lands!

    2. Something tells me there will be objections on pension funding plans.

    3. Like I wrote up yonder there, when we sell the parks off, we could give the assets to organizations like the nature conservancy.

      Then it isn’t like you’re just selling parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone off; you’re generating who knows how many tens of billions to protect more sensitive land–land that might never be protected otherwise.

      The stink you’re talking about is usually brought up by the very environmentalist groups that would benefit most from such a privatization plan. The only people who would oppose it are the people who work for the government.

      Why protect billions of dollars worth of unprotected land if protecting it doesn’t generate a bunch of new government jobs? That’s the way the people who work for the government see these things.

      1. Ken, The Nature conservancy is not interested in running parks. Most of the land they purchase ends up being donated to the federal governments or the state.

        1. I know. I’m not talking about giving the Nature Conservancy the parks to run.

          I’m talking about giving them the money we generate from selling the parks, so that they can do what they do* with a LOT more land than they could before.

          If the money from selling parks is being used to protect sensitive land, then how can environmentalists complain about selling it? Indeed, WHY would they complain about selling it?

      2. In the meantime it is worth discussing a good solution rather than a perfect one.

        1. Absolutely.

          I’m not crazy about seeing what should be taxpayer money going to private charity, necessarily, but I’d much rather see conservation in this country was done by entrepreneurs running the parks–and private charities protecting endangered land (and species).

          The Nature Conservancy does a much better job than the government does of protecting land, too! I think sensitive land is too important to trust to an entity as incompetent as the government. Any environmentalists that would rather see the BLM protect something than the Nature Conservancy are out of their green freaking minds.

          And libertarians should prefer to see private charities protect land (bought at market prices) rather than the federal government’s involvement, too.

  6. Why do I get the feeling national parks run by private enterprise would be just a big shit hole as prisons run by private enterprise?

    1. Do prisoners pay rent? Or are the “private” prisons paid directly by the state?

  7. There are two problems with this idea.
    First is that they won’t actually be allowed to build any new facilities to match demand, particularly in the crown jewels of the NPS (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and Grand Canyon)

    NPS has two competing goals, preservation and recreation.
    Recreation says build more campgrounds/cabins/trails. Preservation says to restrict the number of guests that you can support at a given time (more guests = more resource damage).

    As such, when you visit parks like Glacier NP (my favorite to visit), the cabins and campgrounds were almost all built between 1910 and 1938. There has basically been no increase in the number of facilities available since the 60s when the NPS swung heavily towards preservation. If anything, they have decreased the available facilities.

    The second problem is because of extreme weather, most of the parks are almost empty for nine to ten months out of the year. Glacier for example is is packed from the last week of June through 2nd week of Sept. Outside of that time its either too cold (even in July 40F at night is very common), or there is just so much snow that much of the back-country is inaccessible to any but the most daring.

    I do think the entrance fees are way too low though. Usually between $10 and $25 a week per car, depending on which park you are visiting.
    I’m thinking $20 a day per car would be better.

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