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Should We Take State Parks Off the State’s Books?

by Laura Huggins

I recently responded to an article in the LATimes. I proposed contracting out concessions and other park operations as part of the solution to the budgetary problems facing national parks. As expected, the comments centered on turning Yosemite into Disneyland. Why is it that people always think contracting out services in parks means hiring Mickey Mouse to sell corn dogs? Leonard Gilroy clears up some of the confusion  in the latest PERC Reports.

The term “concession” can mean different things and needs clarification. A ubiquitous type of parks-related concession might involve having a private company run a retail store, food, or equipment rental operation within a government park. For example, private concessionaires currently operate the commercial activities (e.g., lodging, retail, and food) in the “crown jewels” of the national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. However, this is a more limited type of concession than discussed above.

In the “whole park” context, a concession would essentially be a long-term (10–20 year) lease of the entire operation of a park (or group of parks) under a performance-based contract with a private recreation management company. Agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, California State Parks, and the Lower Colorado River Authority have made extensive use of concessionaires to operate and maintain complete parks and campgrounds. During the famous federal government shutdown during the Clinton administration, the only federal recreation facilities that remained open were those run by concessionaires under leases.

…Concessionaires are only allowed to do what the public sector allows them to under the contract, and they cannot change fees or facilities and operating policies without approval from the parks organization. The public authority sets the recreation or preservation mission for the park, and the contract requires concessionaires to manage the park to that mission. If that means “disturb nothing, build nothing, just run clean facilities,” so be it. And fears of concessionaires “cherrypicking” the profitable parks are unfounded, as it is common practice for authorities like the Forest Service to bundle together money-losing parks alongside break-even or revenuepositive parks in concession agreements.

For cash-strapped states, concessions offer the opportunity to turn money-losing parks into revenue generating assets that can be leveraged to help keep other parks open and thriving… It’s for all of these reasons that parks concessions seem like a no-brainer to consider as a viable and positive alternative to budget cuts, park closures, tax hikes, and other sub-optimal policy choices.

Read Leonard’s full article “Taking State Parks Off the State’s Books” here.

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