Parks Closing

Why The US Forest Service Turned to Private Recreation Management

Many people in the US Forest Service, from both organizational pride as well as their own individual incentives (supervisors in the government make more money and have more prestige if they have larger budgets and more headcount) are to this day not happy that the Forest Service has private companies running campgrounds and other recreation areas.  However, this program has been successful for over 30 years and is used to operate over half the USFS recreation areas by number, and probably over 80-90% by visitation.

The USFS originally pursued private management out of necesity.  Here is the only chart you need to see.  Thought the Y-axis says board-feet of timber, it is direclty proportional to USFS revenue (source)

In effect, the USFS recreation program, previously funded in large part by timber sales revenue, lost most all of its funding over the last 20-30 years.  And Congress has made clear that it will not make this up through appropriations.  Worse, every few years, what recreation budget remains is often swept in its entirety into the fire budget during busy fire seasons.

But unlike many state park organizations who are facing budget cuts far less drastic, the USFS is not talking about closing recreation areas, or even building up a backlog of deferred maintenance.  In California, a cut of about $14 million on a $400 million budget has caused over 70 parks to be proposed for closure.  The USFS has, on a percentage basis, seen a much larger decrease in its recreation budget, but it still can keep parks open, mainly because it has learned to use lower-cost private operators to keep parks open.

Alberta Considers Private Park Operations

From the Calgary Sun:

The solution, says Alberta Parks Minister Cindy Ady, is to open the park gates to private enterprise — allowing developers to build and operate campgrounds under licence.

“The policy hasn’t been completely nailed down yet, so I can’t say how it will work, but what we know is this: It could be anywhere in the province,” said Ady.

“If somebody can bring to us a solid plan, there are private campground opportunities.

“They would build it, they would run it.”

The private campground scheme is imminent — Ady said she plans to bring it forward in the fall, as part of her capital budget plans.

“I’m hoping within this year to have that policy work done, so we can at least tell people the rules of engagement,” she said.

The article raises, and actually addresses, one of the great mythologies of private park management — the whole “neon sign in front of Old Faithful” meme.

Images of neon signs and Seattle-based coffee chains may have wilderness lovers horrified, but Ady assures those who head to the woods to escape the rat race, that respite won’t change.

“It will absolutely be the same standards as now — any time we let anyone in on contract, we’d be very careful because they’re still on park land or crown land,” said Ady.

Private Management and Infrastructure Maintenance

The NY Times has more on NY park closures. Many of these parks are ones our company could keep open, but to date I have been reluctant to approach NY as I have Arizona, as I am skittish about trying to operate a business in that state.

The other night, an executive of Arizona State Parks told a public audience that Arizona had invested a lot of infrastructure in the parks and private companies intended to “run the parks into the ground” for profit.  I found this ironic, as I wrote the Arizona State Parks director in response:

It is hilarious to me that [Arizona Sate Park] management is pointing the finger at my company for running infrastructure into the ground.  [One State Park executive] has shown me the deferred maintenance book [for the state parks system].   I would venture that none of the facilities we have operated for any amount of time for any public authority has the compounded deferred maintenance issues you have in many of your parks.  Over the last 3 years, above and beyond regular routine maintenance, we have spent nearly $3 million in capital maintenance and refurbishment, and over $2 million in new facilities or whole facility replacements, all at public recreations areas.

Increasingly, our company has been brought in to a number of park systems to bring private capital to repairing years of deferred maintenance that the public entity can’t afford to address (most recent example here).  It seems like the New York system may be yet another example addressing the myth that somehow private entities are worse than government entities at regular maintenance:

The agency has already absorbed significant cuts in the last three years and during the peak summer months has a skeletal staff in place inside the state parks. “It’s not an agency that’s been dripping with dollars,” Ms. Dropkin said. “They were pretty lean to begin with. They do their best, but the infrastructure is really crumbling. They keep the bathroom doors together with duct tape.”

The State Budget Game

Matt Welch has some thoughts on how state budgeting works:

Here is how the system works, ladies and germs: First, during the good times, when people are (rightly) paying attention to concerns outside the dreary slog of politics and public policy, go ahead and double the cost of state government, in like five years, without a shred of detectable increase in the quality of services. Next, when times get bad, complain bitterly about “savage” and “annihilating” budget cuts, threaten to eliminate the very favoritest of all public services (say, access to the gorgeous state parks in California), and then cut your payroll by all of … a quarter of one percent. After all, why fire a single teacher when the stimulus package will pay for all of them? Finally, when all else fails, raise taxes, to “close the budget deficit” and “restore our education budget to current levels.”

New York State To Close Parks

From the East Aurora Advertisor:

Knox Farm State Park, located just outside the Village of East Aurora, is one of 41 state parks recommended for closure by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation under a plan announced by Governor David Paterson on Fri., Feb. 19. The proposal, part of an effort to shrink the state’s $8.2 billion budget gap, has already prompted an outcry in the East Aurora area, and among the users of parks around New York.