Editorial on Private Management of Public Recreation

Bill Schneider, who wrote an article skeptical of the role of private companies on public lands that I linked earlier, was kind enough to offer me a chance to give an opposing point of view.  My editorial is here.  Excerpt:

And this is the heart of the problem–that recreation costs money. Even a small roadside picnic area can require thousands of dollars a year to clean the bathrooms, haul the trash, and maintain the area to keep it safe. For decades, recreation costs in the Forest Service were funded by timber sales, but these have largely disappeared and Congress has not provided a funding source to replace them. Forest Service recreation budgets have, for years, been insufficient to cover recreation operations as well as necessary major maintenance and refurbishment of facilities.

The Forest Service, looking to stretch its meager recreation budget as far as possible, has turned to private companies to run many of its campgrounds and developed day use facilities. This partnership has largely worked well, with the Forest Service benefiting from the efficiency and customer service focus of private management while retaining tight control over operating standards (concessionaires can’t change a fee, or modify operating hours, or alter any number of other aspects of a park’s operations without the Forest Service’s written approval).

Private concessionaires play a critical role in keeping fees reasonable. Without private concessions, the Forest Service would be forced to raise fees substantially or to close hundreds of recreation areas, a story we unfortunately see being played out in many state parks organizations. For an illustration of this, we can look to my home state of Arizona, where the state parks organization is closing some campgrounds and day use areas and doubling entry fees in many of the others. Similarly, the proliferation of new use and access fees on Forest Service lands has nothing to do with private companies that actually serve to keep fees reasonable. The problem is not privatization; the problem is appropriations, or the lack thereof.