National Parks

Private Companies Are Paying to Keep Yellowstone Clean During Shutdown

They have a profit-based incentive to keep the tourists coming.

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Andre Jenny Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom

Nearly three weeks into the government shutdown, some of America's national parks are starting to get a bit rank. Access is free, since there are no employees to collect the typical $35-per-vehicle entrance fees, but that comes with the trade-off of there being no employees to empty trash bins or clean toilets either.

But at Yellowstone National Park, National Public Radio reports, local businesses are chipping in to make sure the bathrooms get cleaned, the roads get plowed, and the tourists keep coming. Even in the middle of winter, the park gets an estimated 20,000 visitors per month—and those hardy folks want to rent snowmobiles, hire tour guides, and take sightseeing trips. The private-sector businesses that thrive on those tourist dollars have a pretty strong incentive to make sure Yellowstone remains accessible.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs the only hotels inside Yellowstone that remain open during the winter, is leading the effort to cover the $7,500 daily tab for keeping the roads plowed and the snowmobile trails groomed during the shutdown, according to NPR. Thirteen other private businesses that offer tours of the park are chipping in $300 a day to help cover that expense.

Meanwhile, Xanterra has some of its own employees assigned to clean park bathrooms during the shutdown, and snowmobile tour guides are packing their own toilet paper for customers to use.

In all, it seems like a pretty straightforward lesson about how private businesses will respond to changing market conditions and incentives. While some of the business owners profiled by NPR suggest they are chipping in to keep the park open due to altruistic concerns—"it should be open, and services should be there, because it is the people's park," says one—the bottom line is likely the bottom line. Keeping the park accessible means those businesses can continue to profit off tourists, government shutdown or not.

That doesn't mean that altruistic motivations don't exist, of course. In Washington, D.C., a group of libertarians volunteered time on Saturday to clean up land that's usually maintained by the National Park Service. "It's an example of us practicing what we preach. We want the private sector to step up when government can't, so that's what we're doing here," Joseph Bishop-Henchman, chairman of the Libertarian Party of the District of Columbia, told local media.

Those efforts are praiseworthy, but ultimately less sustainable than the profit motive that's helping keep Yellowstone open.

Indeed, those profit motives exist with or without a government shutdown. According to the National Park Service, the 331 million visitors to national parks during 2017 contributed an estimated $18.2 billion to local economies within 60 miles of the parks. All that spending supported 306,000 jobs. The federal government spends about $3 billion on the National Park Service each year, but those private economies based in and around the parks is six times larger. That's a powerful incentive to keep things running even if the government isn't.

There's also probably a useful lesson here about what the privatization of national parks would look like. Rather than the corporatized dystopia of environmentalist nightmares, removing the government from the equation would allow businesses that have a vested interest in maintaining and protecting America's natural splendor to do exactly that—and would prevent the parks from being caught up in the unrelated drama of whatever nonsense is happening in Washington, D.C.

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  1. Access is free, since there are no employees to collect the typical $35-per-vehicle entrance fees

    WTF? Some “shutdown”.

    1. I saved $30 bucks at Joshua Tree National Park on December 30. The park services employees generously gave up their free time to ticket vehicles parked in the red zone in parking lots ($130 fine). I parked in a lawful area but a lot of people lost $100 because they thought the parking zones would not be enforced.

    2. I saved $30 bucks at Joshua Tree National Park on December 30. The park services employees generously gave up their free time to ticket vehicles parked in the red zone in parking lots ($130 fine). I parked in a lawful area but a lot of people lost $100 because they thought the parking zones would not be enforced.

    3. It’s the “Washington Monument Gambit” – an old old ploy where the Park Service responds to actual or threatened budget cuts not by shutting down obscure, low-priority programs, but by closing the Washington Monument and by ending other services in the most painful and complaint-producing way possible.

      Other bureaucracies, State and local, as well as Federal, use this ploy too.

      1. Luckily, the Washington monument is a boring monument.

        1. Washington was a slave owner and his monument should be torn down.

          1. It should be covered by a giant condom to promote safe sexy and because Washington was a dick.

          2. He was also a misogynistic white nationalist! He also didn’t believe that proles should be able to vote, because they’re mostly uneducated morons who wouldn’t know the correct things to vote for…

            Now whether or not the way he and the other “old white guys” set up the country was in fact infinitely better than the way we’re running it now… I won’t comment other than to say that they had lower taxes, and far more personal freedom than we do now. You can make up your own mind!

      2. That bluff could easily be called if people stopped giving a shit about monuments to government and statues of long-dead politicians.

        1. But personality cults! Propaganda! For the children!

      3. During one shutdown back in the Clinton Administration, they barricaded an open air veterans memorial that had no staff, no operating costs. It actually cost them more money to close it than it would have to leave it open.

        There was also one shutdown where the feds tried to barricade boat launches at Wisconsin state parks on the Mississippi river. Our governor at the time sent state troopers to take the barricades down.

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  3. I expect the next step will be to threaten the people doing the cleaning with arrest and criminal charges under the Anti-Deficiency Act or the FYTW law or some such. Maybe “Vandalism of a Federal Facility.”

    1. Just Ruby Ridge them before they have a chance to mention that they have rights.

  4. Private Companies Are Paying to Keep Yellowstone Clean During Shutdown
    They have a profit-based incentive to keep the tourists coming.

    You rang?

    They’d have a profit-based incentive to keep the tourists coming if the park were privatized, too.

    4 million tourists a year come to Yellowstone–because of a lack of development. They could probably get more money out of fewer tourists if they charged market rates.

    Why not save the taxpayers a bundle and aid in keeping more people out of the park by giving the park to a charity or selling it to a tourism company like Disney? An owner like Disney would also have a profit based incentive to keep the tourists coming–and protect the resources those tourists are coming to see, too. As it stands, conservation is just one of the many interests the Park Service has in Yellowstone. That’s the way things work in a pluralistic democracy. Yellowstone isn’t just run for the benefit of conservationists. It’s also run for the benefit of tourism operators, local hotels, etc. It’s also run for the benefit of ranchers. Did you know that they slaughter a number of the last truly wild bison herd every year to keep them from straying onto federal land that’s leased to ranchers? If the ranchers can’t outbid Disney, then they should go ranch somewhere else. If conservationists can outbid Disney, then Disney should go screw themselves.

    1. Please, not Disney. At least NPS is biased towards reality, in presenting nature and history. And even lets people hurt themselves. A Disney-run park would by definition present contrived, “enigneered” experiences, with more rules than the US congress.

      1. If you want to maximize access for tourism and long-term conservation of Disney’s own property, that’s the way to go. The fact is that productive conservation and tourism are often competing concerns, and the government isn’t the right entity to balance them or innovate and find ways to maximize both. Disney is one example of a company that might be both willing and able to take on the challenge, but they were just one example. Regardless, even from a purely conservation standpoint, I’d give it for free to conservation society if it means getting it out of government hands.

      2. The Soviet Union ran into problems in the end deciding who would own all those government resources–especially those that were involved with commodity resources like oil. I don’t know how we can expect government to privatize this stuff without taking the concerns of various interests into consideration. The ranchers, for instance, won’t give up cheap grazing without a protest, and a fair auction may put them at a disadvantage if they go up against someone with deep pockets like Disney. On the other hand, if the government sold that land off to ranchers, how many of them would keep grazing on it if Disney were willing to pay them top dollar?

        Ultimately, land tends towards its highest and best use, and trying to decide who does or doesn’t get it from the government probably isn’t as important as making sure that it’s privatized.

        “Because the oligarchs are crooks” is no good reason to stick with communism, and that’s more or less what we’re talking about here. The government is doing a shitty job of conservation, and the ranchers are unhappy, too. We solve these problems with markets and private property in capitalist countries, and the first step is to get that land privatized.

    2. Disney tried that in Sequoia National Park. Walt was an avid skier and wanted to build a ski resort there in the 60s. After years of tussling around with the government and environmental groups they dropped out of the project.

      Disney is mostly in the media content and movie business these days with plans for a new streaming service. I doubt they would be interested. There are lots of others who might be but would likely face the same roadblocks.

  5. Here’s a novel idea. Pick up your own trash.

    1. Some of the tourists are presumably French, and they can’t be expected to do that.

      1. Cigarette butts and half eaten baguettes EVERYWHERE! THE BASTARDS!!!

    2. The article isn’t about picking up litter as much as it is about emptying the trashcans.

  6. Several years ago, I analyzed budgets for two national parks (Yosemite and Yellowstone) using 2012 figures, and two city parks (Golden Gate in SF and Central Park in NYC). A quickie, no real attempt to understand the budgets, or what was covered in other budgets, or whether budgets included entrance fees, etc.

    The two city parks came out to $1/visitor, meaning if they were privatized, they’d be dead cheap; cheaper than the bus ride to get there.

    Yosemite came to $8 and 21 employee minutes per visitor.

    Yellowstone came to $10 and 19 employee minutes per visitor.

    If employees cost $30/hour, that comes to roughly $20/visitor. I had no way of differentiating day visits, extended visits, etc. But it was an interesting exercise.

    Both were eminently suitable for privatization. I doubt much has changed in the interim.

    1. It would be more interesting if you looked at visitor-hours. I’ll bet the average visit to Yosemite is more than 10 times longer than the average visit to Central Park. Also, you’d have to consider land values. Central Park is worth quite a bit more per acre than Yellowstone.

      I’ll bet the National Parks Service is much more efficient than any city park. They mostly only provide basic services and don’t really have much mission creep. Also, local governments are much more prone to corruption.

      That being said, a private group could easily outperform either.

    2. The most popular national parks attract tons of foreign tourists. You could let Americans use the parks without fees, and the foreign tourists would happily pay enough admission fees to cover all expenses — it would be nothing compared to their travel and lodging fees.

  7. Reason also had a story several years ago on some state (Arizona or New Mexico, I think) which privatized state parks. Came out cheaper, more visitors, and happier visitors. I liked the explanation: states set budgets arbitrarily, so if a park becomes more popular from better management, there is no extra money for more personnel to handle the extra visitors; contrary-wise, if management discourages visitors, there is less work to do and easier jobs for the personnel.

    Whereas private parks have every incentive to improve the park, attract more visitors and more revenue, and make the visitors happier so they come back again.

    1. Yellowstone is a very clean park these days, but Disney World is immaculate.

  8. There’s also probably a useful lesson here about what the privatization of national parks would look like.

    If if said “privatization” included provisions limiting the development of the areas in question.

    If it’s just the fed or a state selling off land to be used however the purchaser wants, it’s more likely to be closed as a park and used for it’s natural non-tourism resources.

    1. “If if said “privatization” included provisions limiting the development of the areas in question.
      If it’s just the fed or a state selling off land to be used however the purchaser wants, it’s more likely to be closed as a park and used for it’s natural non-tourism resources.”

      I’m awfully glad you are here to tell us proles how resources should be allocated.
      Do you have a plan? Perhaps a 5-year plan?

      1. I’m awfully glad you are here to tell us proles how resources should be allocated.

        Well then you should be disappointed, as that’s not what I did.

        My point is that this isn’t what privatization would probably look like. I said nothing about what should happen.

    2. Let’s imagine for a moment that the feds did sell off Yellowstone and Yosemite. What would a likely buyer do?

      Most people worry about developers turning it into expensive houses for a few privileged rich. But how many rich people would want to put up houses there? Very few people would want to live there year round, and those that do would not want to be visible to the maddening crowds.

      I bet that land is worth far more to a few million recurring visitors than even a few thousand one-off sales. Yosemite and Yellowstone had 3-4M visitors. At $35 each, that’s $100M a year, probably a profit of $10-20M a year. What interest would it take on housing lot sales to equal that?

      There might well be a few hundred housing lots sold, but the buyers AND the developers would do their darnedest to keep them invisible. There would have to be roads, of course, but they would need to exist anyway for maintenance and fire fighting. The houses themselves could probably double as ranger outposts and command posts for search and rescue operations.

      Visually, the worst a ski resort does is show up as stripes on a mountain. Physically, they make one area useless to a few backpackers. But anyone who has been to Yosemite in the winter knows how crowded it gets now. You have to book stays a year in advance. Anybody who whines about destroying a pristine wilderness doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about.

      1. First-up, that all sounds nice, but to-date it’s fantasy. Corporations just don’t have a track record of being good stewards for land, whatever incentives you think they have to do so.

        Second-up, I wasn’t “whining”, I was pointing out that the current situation doesn’t match what privatization would look like. That’s not an argument for or against, just that this situation is irrelevant.

        Or to put it another way… businesses that are dependent on government land acting in the short-term are not representative of what businesses that own the land would act like in the long-term. You should be able to recognize this regardless of what you think regarding privatization.

        1. “Corporations just don’t have a track record of being good stewards for land”

          False. People who own the land have a great incentive to be good stewards of that land. It is governments that don’t have a track record of being good stewards for land.

          “I was pointing out that the current situation doesn’t match what privatization would look like”

          No you weren’t. You were, and are, pretending your fantasies are reality.

        2. EscherEnigma|1.7.19 @ 2:28PM|#
          “…Corporations just don’t have a track record of being good stewards for land, whatever incentives you think they have to do so.”

          First up, you’re a fucking ignoramus.

          1. Yeah, Peabody coal company beautified southeastern Ohio!!

            Oh, wait…

      2. It’s not something folks should worry about, since any sale could include a conservation easement that precludes developers building houses for the rich (or whatever scenario one is worried about).

        1. Why are you so excited to so weaken property rights?

        2. Mike Laursen|1.7.19 @ 6:54PM|#
          “It’s not something folks should worry about, since any sale could include a conservation easement that precludes developers building houses for the rich (or whatever scenario one is worried about).”
          Fuck off, slaver.

    3. Alternatively, what would Yellowstone or Yosemite be worth to loggers or miners? Both are pretty rugged, lots of mountains and canyons, hardly ideal for strip mining. Probably gold miners could find value in the rivers, but not enough for crowds, and the few who would do so would quickly exhaust the easy findings.

      Logging is not a way to get rich. There are plenty of other forests to choose, but it is also important to thin the forests, to keep them from becoming forest fire bait. That lesson hasn’t been learned yet by eco warriors.

      I imagine parks would allow selective logging every 20 years, ie, a rotating logging operation, every year shutting down 1/20 of the park for thinning. Gosh that’s terrible.

    4. “if said “privatization” included provisions limiting the development of the areas in question.”

      People like you make the world a worse place.

      “it’s more likely to be closed as a park and used for it’s natural non-tourism resources.”

      What numbers are you using to calculate those probabilities? And why are you acting like it would be bad to provide people with places to live and work?

  9. “Private Companies Are Paying to Keep Yellowstone Clean During Shutdown”

    And the publisher of the Chron is *pissed*! Dirty parks was the ‘Trump is a poopyhead’ story this weekend.

  10. Warren Meyer (Coyote Blog) runs a business managing public parks. There’s lots of info on the subject on his blog here: http://coyoteblog.com/

  11. Heresy! Only government can manage public facilities. Even if private companies do a better job for less money it’s…it’s just wrong and everyone knows it. It’s the way we’ve always done things…well, since we did them differently anyway.

  12. Private companies should not clean up Yellowstone.
    That should be left to lazy, inefficient and over-paid government employees who will clean up this park and treat it like the EPA treated the Colorado River a few years ago.
    The only duty private companies have to Yellowstone and other national parks is pay an excessive amount of taxes to ensure no one uses them and ensure the US government continues its insane monopoly of land in this country.

  13. Interesting article but I am not yet convinced. The fact that businesses will help in the short term does not mean that they are a long term solution. My guess is that those business contributing are looking at this as a short term effort. As with much of the government shut down it is an experiment. At what point do things break down. When do the businesses helping at the National Parks say were are done helping? At what point do government contractors start suing for nonpayment? At what point do TSA agents say were are done screening if we don’t get paid? And do we let plans fly with unscreened passengers?

    1. “The fact that businesses will help in the short term does not mean that they are a long term solution.”

      Why are you pretending politicians think in the longer term than businessmen? Why are you pretending businessmen don’t think about profits next year, as well as this year?

      “At what point do things break down”

      Most of the federal government didn’t exist for most of the republic. You are wrong to think what’s happening is some sort of unprecedented “experiment”. And you are wrong to think government existing doesn’t cause things to break down.

      “At what point do government contractors start suing for nonpayment?”

      Non-payment for what? Government contractors that aren’t going to get paid aren’t working. You should learn how government contract work.

      “At what point do TSA agents say were are done screening if we don’t get paid?”

      Case in point to display your ignorance. The TSA isn’t part of the government shut down.

      “And do we let plans fly with unscreened passengers?”

      Why are you pretending the TSA does a good job screening passengers? The TSA should be entirely disbanded. The TSA hasn’t improved flight safety, but it has made flying more expensive and onerous, as well as being more dangerous at the airport. The TSA is filled with criminals stealing from flyers, assaulting flyers and assaulting each other (around 98% of TSA personnel assaulted were assaulted by other TSA personnel).

      You really should learn how government actually works.

    2. Moderation4ever|1.7.19 @ 5:31PM|#
      “Interesting article but I am not yet convinced.”
      That’s because you’re a lefty imbecile.

  14. Profit is hate speech!!!

  15. I’m surprised that anyone wants their publicly paid for infrastructure left in the hands of quite likely incompetent custodians simply for greed.

    Toilets and garbage cans maybe, but a lot of damage could incur the power and clean water facilities.

    Repairs that all taxpayers will be on the hook for.

    1. Government custodians are FAAARRR more incompetent than private sector ones.

      “Repairs that all taxpayers will be on the hook for.”

      Why? Why should I have to pay for your vacation spot? ALL of these places should be privatized. It’s disgusting how greedy people like you force everyone else to pay for your vacation spots.

      1. You’re paying for the upkeep of a protected natural and public space that will never become some rich cunts private property and denied to everyone else.

        You pay taxes and obey the laws for the privilege of living in this civilization.

        Your alternative is obvious.

        1. Rob Misek|1.7.19 @ 9:16PM|#
          “You’re paying for the upkeep of a protected natural and public space that will never become some rich cunts private property and denied to everyone else.”
          As opposed to ‘public property’ subject to the tragedy of the commons and supported buy fucking lefty ignoramuses like you, asshole?

          “You pay taxes and obey the laws for the privilege of living in this civilization
          Your alternative is obvious.”
          Fuck off, slaver. The world will be a better place when you die.

        2. Rob Misek: “You’re paying for the upkeep of a protected natural and public space that will never become some rich cunts private property and denied to everyone else.”

          Does not answer the question, Why should we have to pay for your vacation spot?

          Your answer sounds like “Let them eat cake”

          1. Because the civilization you live in requires you to.

            You pay taxes for all kinds of infrastructure that support our civilization, that you may never use.

            You may never understand why. That doesn’t warrant agreement. Sucks to be you.

            1. Tell your government representative that because you live in your parents basement with a seemingly endless supply of kook aid, pizza pockets and wifi, you never intend to leave and utilize any public services and as such you should live tax free.

              I’m sure your request will receive the attention it deserves.

    2. Rob Misek|1.7.19 @ 8:12PM|#
      “I’m surprised that anyone wants their publicly paid for infrastructure left in the hands of quite likely incompetent custodians simply for greed.”

      I’m surprised a fucking ignoramus like you knows how to tie their shoes.
      Fuck off, slaver, and die.

    3. LOL, why are you on a libertarian site. The greedy private sector always provides better service at lower cost than the inefficient bloated public sector. And this is a prime example.

      1. Some people whose perspectives can’t withstand scrutiny need to communicate with only similarly biased individuals. It sucks to be you.

        If Yellowstone was private property there would be no opportunity for tourism.

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  17. Just an example of what “non-essential” is. Give it a little more time and others will popup.

  18. In privately held Yosemite in 2025, owners Exxray find a deposit of unobtanium in the middle of El Capitan. Of course they blast the mountain to rubble, keeping away any tourists and make trillions$.

    Ain’t privatization great!

    **My proposal is to keep ownership with the government and have companies bid on the right to manage the park with limitations on permanent modifications and performance measures. Like the National labs.

    1. If, a deposit of some unimaginably valuable unobtainium is discovered in the middle of El Capitan, it SHOULD be mined. Of course, blasting it to rubble is not a very efficient mining technique, so they are unlikely to use it. But that is putting it to it’s best use.

      If you believe you have a better use, YOU should buy it, and manage it as YOU see fit, using YOUR money. But you are more interested in using government to steal money from others so you can indulge your own petty preferences.

      1. “But you are more interested in using government to steal money from others so you can indulge your own petty preferences.”

        How is the government keeping land it owns stealing?

        Selling it to developers can be considered stealing its future enjoyment from future generations.

        Perhaps we should sell the White House? Edwards Air Force Base?

        I believe in joint ownership, as in my home, our country club, or the local church. Government ownership is merely one of these. I AGREE that private management would be more efficient. The preferences for use should be those of all the owners, not mine alone.

      2. Efficient?

        Well a brilliant dictatorship is far more efficient than a stupid democracy.

        People better sort their values out.

  19. Of all the MANY things the government should get out of, ESPECIALLY the feds, National Parks just aren’t at the top of my list.

    I’m sure they could rearrange budgets and such better. Like make them all be self funding on a per site basis or something, where they get to keep a certain amount excess profits or something for their site. I dunno. But they’re far from the worst thing government does.

    All the random, not cool, nothing special BLM land… THAT shit should be auctioned off over time. But keeping a few inefficiently run national parks? It’s pretty what evs. Maybe it would be fine, if it was thought through well. But it’s just not at the top of the list.

    We need to, like, stop wasting trillions on pointless wars, eliminate/massively restructure any welfare programs we don’t get rid of, etc etc etc and balance the friggin’ budget. And a million other things. We can worry about privatizing Yellowstone when we have a balanced budget and half the federal government functions have been devolved to the states, or better yet eliminated by all levels of government.

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