Back to the Future of America's National Parks

Published: 
Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We should do more than celebrate the 100th anniversary. We should ask serious questions about how to improve our national parks.

South Rim of Grand Canyons National Par. Photo courtesy of M. Quinn and the National Park Service.South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Photo © M. Quinn / NPS

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary. With “crown jewels” such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon in its asset portfolio, it’s no wonder this bureaucracy is a favorite of the American people. A recent survey of visitors to Yosemite National Park showed a 98 percent satisfaction rate with the park’s services and recreational opportunities, despite the fact that many of Yosemite’s roads and trails are clogged with traffic.

What the satisfied park visitor doesn’t see is that the long-term outlook for our national parks is not so rosy. In particular, the Park Service’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog is a glaring blemish on an agency known for its crown jewels. Even with the ability to keep some of the gate receipts from low fees—$30 per vehicle for a weeklong pass to Yellowstone, to say nothing of the $10 lifetime senior pass—the agency must grovel at the feet of Congress for annual appropriations.

To reflect on the past 100 years and look to the future of parks, PERC held a three-day workshop with papers ranging from the role of private enterprise in establishing national parks to the importance of dynamic ecology in managing grizzly bears in Yellowstone and wolves in Isle Royale. The upshot from this workshop is that we should do more than celebrate the 100th anniversary. We should ask serious questions about how to improve the ecological and fiscal management of national parks.

The great economist Milton Friedman provides a starting for point. In his best-selling book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman argues that there may be an economic rationale for public provision of neighborhood parks, but there is no such rationale for national parks. In his words, “The entrances to a national park like Yellowstone… are few; most of the people who come stay for a considerable period of time and it is perfectly feasible to set up toll gates and collect admission charges. This is indeed now done, though the charges do not cover the whole costs. If the public wants this kind of an activity enough to pay for it, private enterprises will have every incentive to provide such parks.” As usual, Friedman’s logic is impeccable, but privatizing national parks, especially the crown jewels, is a political non-starter.

If not privatization, is there an alternative that harnesses the incentives of free enterprise to improve park management? PERC research fellow Holly Fretwell says yes. As Fretwell demonstrates in her book Who’s Minding the Federal Estate?, local managers often do a better fiscal and ecological job of managing their forests and parks than the federal government. Decentralization, especially if agencies face a meaningful bottom line, makes the difference.

Based on her research, Fretwell recommends an experiment for managing our national parks—franchising. Just as businesses sell franchises for restaurants to individual owners, suppose the NPS sold franchises for some of its parks to management companies. A franchise sets product and service standards, and the franchisee reaps a profit from the brand as well as from good management. In the same way, the NPS could set ecological, recreational, and educational standards, and the franchisees would have to meet those standards and could capture a profit from good management.

If national parks are “America’s best idea,” then we should celebrate the idea by making them better. At a minimum, we should charge higher entrance fees to be invested in the parks where they are collected. But we can do even better if we follow the basic tenet of free market environmentalism—incentives matter. PERC is always on the cutting edge of new environmental ideas, and Holly Fretwell’s idea of franchising is an idea whose time has come. Just as railroads played a role in establishing national parks, as Alfred Runte eloquently explains, private enterprise offers a path back to the future of our national parks. 

Can Private Management Fix Our National Parks?

Holly Fretwell explains how private entrepreneurs can operate national parks under clear environmental and recreational standards—all while earning a profit and generating revenue for the government. This approach would preserve the integrity of the National Park System and ensure our parks remain open and maintained.

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Terry Anderson is a senior fellow at PERC and the former President and Executive Director of PERC as well as the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He believes that market approaches can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive. His research helped launch the idea of free market...
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