Is a Private Park a Better Park?

With the recent government shutdown still ringing in our ears, Americans stand in a perfect position to reflect on some of the effects. One of the most direct effects of the cessation of funding to “non-essential” government activities was the closure of many government parks including Yellowstone. One may think it odd that one of the most essentially self sufficient entities under government control, wilderness, would be one of the first things to shut down. However in a difficult financial situation, parks and other public goods are often the first to have funding cut, or have previously appropriated funds redirected towards other, more immediate needs.

Fortunately for us, nature needs no federal funding to continue to run, but parks with their miles of roads and extensive infrastructure require maintenance and security in order to remain open to the public. The 16-day shut down that hindered economic activity in the areas around Yellowstone and other national parks was difficult indeed, but perhaps it can serve as an opportunity to assess how to avoid such events in the future.

So how could things have turned out differently shut-down included? In contrast to the overnight moratorium that closed nationally run parks nationwide, state parks actually experienced an increase in visitors, as they became an alternative to the then-inaccessible federal parks. But during budget shortfalls even state parks can take a hit, so what then is a solution?

Some might suggest an increase in funding or a revamp of the methods of government park management, but an MSU adjunct instructor and researcher at the Bozeman free-market environmentalist think tank, PERC, Holly Fretwell suggests another option. Private leasing of the management rights of public parks to private companies may be a viable option

Before outdoor enthusiasts start to turn red with rage as visions run through their mind of bulldozers plowing into Norris to build waterslides and golf courses, it may be worth noting that nearly 50% of U.S. forest service campgrounds are already managed by private entrepreneurs. That’s right, chances are the last time you went car camping, you slept in a campground that was not run by dutiful public servants, but dollar-signs-for-eyes capitalists!

Now granted the fact that most campsite hosts are often in it more for the experience of managing a campsite than for financial gain. However even if profit was their sole incentive, the managers are bound to strict agency rules that regulate nearly every aspect of the job and it’s privileges. This is why even the most ambitious hosts cannot build water slides or golf courses on the public land. So why not extend this policy to state parks or even to the national level? According to Fretwell’s report, the lease paid to the government organization often exceeds the previous revenue of park operation while under government management.

As the result of the greater adaptability of private organizations, as well as the profit motivation inherent in the private sector, the private management is often able to run the park at greater efficiency while maintaining infrastructure and making financial preparations for budget shortfalls safe from the hands of politicians. In addition, the greater efficiency of private management can generate profit which the state or government agency receives a portion of. If more management were to be conducted by private organizations on these terms we might find that in crisis, our parks better mirror the natural world they protect; open, accessible, and thriving.