In 2010, Arizona announced it would have to close Red Rock State Park near Sedona due to budget shortfalls. Despite collecting nearly $300,000 a year in admissions fees, the park needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet its operating costs—money the state did not have. The park also had a growing maintenance backlog, as years of budget shortfalls forced park staff to skip critical repairs.
Next door, the U.S. Forest Service owns Crescent Moon Ranch, a nearly identical public park with similar facilities, visitation, and revenues. The fee revenue at this park, however, not only keeps the park fully maintained, it adds more than $60,000 to the local Forest Service recreation budget—all without requiring tax money to operate.
Why the difference? In this PERC Case Study, Warren Meyer explores a radically different model for operating public parks—one in which park agencies partner with private companies to substantially reduce costs while providing more accountability and customer service. Although both parks are similar, the state-operated Red Rocks Park costs more than twice as much to operate as the privately operated Crescent Moon Ranch, which remains fully maintained and generates a return for the U.S. Forest Service.
Today, more than 1,000 campgrounds and recreation areas are operated by private companies under the supervision of the Forest Service. All of these parks remain open and well-maintained without the need for tax money. As Meyer explains, this public-private partnership provides a model for keeping parks open and cared for into the next century.