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Would Outsourcing Parks Solve The National Park Service’s Financial Woes?

Last month, at a PERC workshop titled “The National Park Service at 100: Back to the Future of America’s National Parks,” we assembled parks and public lands scholars and professionals to discuss the state of our National Parks and explore possible solutions to some of the challenges the National Park Service faces.

Bryce Canyon photo courtesy of Kurt Repanshek.

We were joined by journalist Kurt Repanshek. founder of the online magazine, National Parks Traveler. He writes about the ideas Holly Fretwell presented at the workshop to bring us toward more effective management and stable funding for our parks.

With a park system that is being strangled by its maintenance backlog and operating costs, would the National Park Service, and the system, be better off if the agency outsourced entire parks?

That isn’t necessarily a ridiculous idea on its face. Already the Park Service contracts with others to manage its lodgings, restaurants, and many campgrounds, and it relies heavily on volunteers to cope with visitors. So why not go all in? Would it make a stronger, more efficient, and better managed park system if individual units were treated, say, as franchises that were independently managed? 

From the perspective of one of the workshop’s presenters, Holly Fretwell, the Park Service appears to be an inefficient agency that likely could benefit by placing the day-to-day operation of some, if not many, of its units into the hands of the business community.

“To me, if we thought about this from some sort of economic perspective, the point of the National Park Service, the reason that you would want sort of that umbrella entity, is to lower the transaction cost of having these parks function,” Ms. Fretwell, a research fellow at PERC and an adjunct economics instructor at Montana State University, said in a follow-up interview. “If it’s not doing that, if it’s actually increasing the transaction costs, then it’s not serving its purpose. And I think at this point it might be increasing those transaction costs.”

Whether the Park Service’s staggering fiscal morass is due to managerial pitfalls or congressional underfunding has been, and will continue to be, debated. By placing some units under outside managers — franchisees could be one descriptor — not only could lead the units to become economically viable, but also help control Congress’s appetite for creating park system units that might not quite fit the mold.

Would a First State National Monument be any less if a non-profit organization ran it, much like the Mount Vernon Ladies Association runs George Washington’s home? Should $8 million-$26 million in tax dollars be spent in the coming years to fund the proposed Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, or should an outside group step forward with a plan to raise those funds on its own and operate such a park under the NPS umbrella?

“Why do we have a National Park Service anyway? What is the NPS, and what is it doing for us?” questioned Ms. Fretwell. “Is it providing a great service and helping us lower the transaction costs for us to have these wonderful parks, or is it not?”

There still would be a need for a Park Service, she went on, to manage park units that don’t quite fit a business model but which we as a society still want preserved, either for their historical significance or natural resources. Units that might fit that description could include Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mojave National Preserve in California, or St. Croix Island National Historic Site in Maine.

“I have a concern for these areas that are worthy of protection, but they can’t pay for themselves. I don’t want to cut those out and say everybody should be able to run as a franchise and everybody should be self-sufficient and everything’s fine and dandy,” Ms. Fretwell explained. “I do think that there are places worth protecting that will not be financially self-sufficient.”

The piece has generated a great deal of discussion. You can read it in its entirety at National Parks Traveler.

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