Year: 2013

PERC on Private Operation of Public Parks

My article on private operation of public parks has been published by PERC and is now up at their web site.  It’s called “A Tale of Two Parks” and compares the costs of private and public operation, among a number of other issues.

Government Shutdown and Privately Operated Federal Parks

The government shutdown in October was an interesting chapter in the business of private operation of public parks.

For years I have said that one of the advantages of private operation of public parks is that these parks are sheltered from budget shenanigans.  If the park  is operating with no public money, they can’t be closed when budgets are cut.  In fact, in all past Federal shutdowns, such as the two under President Clinton, private concessionaires in the US Forest Service stayed open.

Well, I guess this Administration was dead-set on making a liar out of me, because private Forest Service concessionaires were shut down in the recent budget battle.  In the early days of the government closure, we were told that we would stay open, as in the past.  Then we got the fateful call from a senior US Forest Service executive telling us that the decision had been made “above the Department of Agriculture” (ie in the White House) that we had to close.  So we did.

However, we filed suit in Federal court to block the closure, and on the last day finally had our day in court, where the Federal judge excoriated the Forest Service for closing us.

If you are interested, I documented the whole saga at my other blog, with all the articles on the shutdown collected here.

By the way, in the interest of fairness, if you want an opposing viewpoint from someone who seems thrilled that we were closed, see here (along with some of my responses in the comment section, if they have not been deleted).

Rethinking California Parks

The Little Hoover Commission, a sort of internal consulting arm attached to the California legislature, has released a report called “Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California’s State Park System“.

I am still skimming the report.  Certainly private partnerships play a role in the recommendations, but they appear to be the more tepid “private partnerships to increase revenue” rather than the more impactful “private partnerships to reduce operating costs.”  At best, private partnerships might generate a few extra million dollars in park revenues, but private operations could cut park operations costs by half, or by over $100 million.

Using Private Operators To Short-Circuit the Sequester

Derrick Crandall has an article recently on ways the NPS can survive the sequester.  Here is a key bit:

Second, there are roles and functions that could and should be reviewed and could be transferable to private sector operations.  For example, NPS directly operates most of its campgrounds while a sister federal agency, the Forest Service, relies largely on concessioners.  NPS campgrounds are now underutilized, full only during peak seasons and some weekends.  Concessioner operation would add camper services, introduce dynamic pricing and start marketing these campgrounds.  NPS costs would drop by millions of dollars, its receipts from franchise fees would rise … and campers would have increased satisfaction levels.  Estimated net financial gain from this change is at least $25 million.

The other related advantage of private operation, particularly in a concession model where companies are paid with visitor fees, is that these fees are protected from legislative sweeps and government closures.  By contract, the user fees in concession contracts remain in the park, supporting operations and improvements.

Huff Post Live Discusses National Parks and Privatization

I was on Huffington Post Live the other day in a panel discussion on privatizing National Parks.  The link to the video and comments is here.

None of the panelists, including me, advocated for privatizing National Parks.  The whole point of public lands, as I have written on this site before, is to change the decision-making calculus around development of and access to these lands from net present value to broader access and more natural settings.  In other words, no one wants a McDonalds in front of Old Faithful.

What I did advocate for, as discussed starting around the 7 minute mark, is for privatization of certain operational tasks, from bathroom cleaning to maintenance to landscaping, in order to reduce costs.  Already, the high cost of using civil service employees to perform these tasks are crowding out things like maintenance and renovation.

Parks 2.0

A relatively new group called the Conservation Leadership Council kicked off their tenure by sponsoring six articles on the future of environment and land management.  One of those size initiatives was called Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks Through Public-Private Partnerships.

I won’t be coy — the authors interviewed me several times and I helped them find the relevant data.  But they did a great job outlining how parks agencies can reduce operating costs and thus keep their parks open using PPP’s for park operations.  A great primer for those interested in this model.