Market Solutions for National Parks

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by Shawn Regan

At, Laura Huggins responds to Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's recent op-ed on the path forward for America's national parks. While Burns and Duncan offer little more than nostalgia, Huggins lays out real proposals that can boost revenues, attract more visitors, and be implemented almost immediately.

Perhaps it's time to revisit the original vision of the national parks system. As noted by Holly Fretwell, the author of "Who is Minding the Federal Estate?," the park service's first director, Stephen Mather, believed that the ability to set appropriate fees and retain park receipts was important for responsible management, as doing so created a direct tie to those visiting and managing the resource. Under Mather's leadership, five parks became operationally self-sufficient, including Yosemite.

Looking back to the parks' origins and adopting more market mechanisms may be the solution to enhancing the visitor experience and boosting financial support. A few ideas include expanding the Fee Demonstration Program, which ensures that revenue generated by fees at certain parks be kept in those parks rather than sent back to the federal Treasury; contracting out more concession services (which has a proven track record in some of California's state parks); and engaging in benefits-sharing agreements, in which national parks reap some of the profits from businesses that do research in the parks with an eye on commercial opportunities.

As for benefits sharing, the National Park Service has granted thousands of research permits. In Yellowstone alone, there are about 40 research studies being conducted at any given time. Commercial firms studying microbes that flourish in Yellowstone's geysers stand to earn billions, and Yellowstone should get a piece of that. Yet opponents challenge such agreements as a commercial use of park resources, even though the microbes collected in the parks remain in federal ownership.

Read the full article here.
Shawn Regan is a research fellow and the director of publications at PERC. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News, Reason, Regulation, Grist, and Distinctly Montana. Shawn is...
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