Arizona Parks Privitization

The AZ Republic has an editorial today saying that privatization is not the answer for the Arizona State Parks budget woes.   On the plus side, they did actually call me for my opinion yesterday before they published it.  On the down side, they ignored everything I said.  Here is my response:

I run one of the larger private parks management companies in the country, which is based right here in Phoenix. Like many Arizona residents, I am a frequent visitor to our state parks and am sympathetic to their current budget pain. Further, I am not one to offer up privatization as a panacea for all the park's woes -- the state parks organization fulfills a variety of public missions that cannot be undertaken well privately. But I think you missed a couple of important considerations in your editorial today counseling against privatization options.

First, from my experience with public recreation agencies around the country, these budget pressures on parks organizations never really end. Recreation is almost always a key pawn in budget fights, and even if Arizona State Parks funding is restored this year, we likely will be fighting the same battles in a few years. Private concession management of parks has the advantage of taking parks off the budget, so they no longer can fall victim to budget fights. For example, in the famous 1995 federal government shutdown, private concession run facilities in the US Forest Service were the only federal recreation options that remained open through the whole budget battle.

Second, while small low-visitation parks, on a standalone basis, may not represent a very good business opportunity, there are a variety of ways to handle privatization of smaller parks. We run approximately 175 public parks and campgrounds across the country, and well fewer than half of these stand on their own as private business opportunities. But many public agencies have learned to package smaller, low-visitation parks with higher-visitation parks into multi-park packages that both provide operators a business opportunity as well as meet the public's goal of keeping all of its parks open. Further, states like California have found many creative ways to keep historic sites open using private management. These solutions, at places like Columbia State Park, not only keep historic buildings open to the public but also create events and services that bring history alive and make it more interesting, particularly to children.

I know that private management is often sloughed off with statements like, "they would just build a McDonald's or put in a bunch of billboards." But thousands of parks nationally are managed privately, and this never happens. In part, this is because business people should get some credit for intelligence, and they understand what attracts people to outdoor parks in the first place and don't want to mess with the ambiance. In addition, we often have 100+ page operating agreements in place that carefully set out the quality of our services and the approvals we must obtain to make any changes to the facilities.

Further, it is sometimes suggested that private companies would just jack up the price. Well, Arizona State Parks is proposing to raise the Slide Rock entrance fee to $20. In contrast, we run nearby picnic and day use areas at places like Grasshopper Point and we rapacious capitalists only charge $8.

I am not advocating that Arizona State Parks turn off the lights and throw the keys to a private company; but I do think that private concession management could offer a piece of the long-term solution to keeping state parks open, both now and in future budget battles.


  1. NormD:

    Very nice.

    More and more I wonder if direct fee for service is a better model for taxing citizens. I sort dislike that a government cannot move funds around to their best use, but there is something very nice about knowing that the park entrance fee goes to build, repair and run parks, my gas tax goes to build and repair roads. Its very annoying that politicians can take park entrance fees to support god-knows-what.

  2. ADiff:

    I thought the Republic's editorial pretty vapid. About all it communicated in detail, such as there was, was that privatization wasn't a "cure all". That statement seemed pretty much a waste of editorial space to me. Otherwise all they did was pooh-pooh the idea of amateur group involvement, which seemed rather small-minded and contemptuous of the many enthusiastic and serious minded amateur groups that might play a productive part in such efforts, even if careful supervision and oversight were required. They need look no further than the Game & Fish department to see how valuable a role such groups can play when managed reasonably well.

    All-in-all it reminds one why government management of anything is always so depressingly a zero-sum game and why amenity assets like recreation areas, wildlife areas and historic sites will always be recurrent losers in the competition for scarce resources in the face of endless demands to meet infrastructural, health, safety and social concerns.

    They act as if 'privatization' were a trade-off with public funding. It's not. The alternative is only revision of such properties to State permittees, where possible, and unmanaged use and a law enforcement burden. The State would be well advised to pursue privatization of any facility it cannot manage itself, as the only practical alternative to public exclusion (which will actually be mandated by State land laws!), unmanaged illegal use and degredation and the associated burden of law enforcement where such is even attempted at all. It's the only way the goal of providing recreational and educational opportunity from such areas can still be met under budget constraints, which I doubt will be disappearing any time real soon. And who knows...maybe they'll discover that the results could be better than they could manage by themselves!

  3. Mesa Econoguy:

    The Republic is a joke of a paper, populated with high school dropouts and grammatically-challenged sycophants.

    They are universally and perpetually wrong.

    Not to give press time to your competition Coyote, Xanterra runs the Grand Canyon sites very well.

  4. greg:

    I never understood how you "close" a park? I mean, it's an outdoor, public use space.

    I've run across this quite a bit over the last few years taking motorcycle trips across the northeast. We'd pick a part with a campground in it, ride there only to find it closed. So we'd ride around the gate, pitch our tents, and build a fire.

    I mean, I understand if they want to elminate maintenance, but why "close" a park? In my mind it just lends credence to the fact that they want the public to suffer a bit until we're willing to pay more taxes.

  5. frankania:

    Greg is right. A park is usually "nature"--a space where natural plants grow and man-made stuff is rare.
    Here in Mexico there are many parks, always open and almost always unmanned by any govt. workers. Sure people sometimes throw trash around, but so what, they are at least OPEN.

  6. Charlie B:

    Your problem is you are NOT a union. Become one and the state and federal governments will welcome you with open arms.

  7. Bob Smith:

    but there is something very nice about knowing that the park entrance fee goes to build, repair and run parks, my gas tax goes to build and repair roads

    That's a comforting but dangerous delusion. It is very likely, for example, that your gas taxes are diverted to rail or bus projects, or simply the general fund, rather than roads. Many states have raised gas taxes recently, and Minnesota's model was very popular: its additional tax capped the percentage of gas tax revenue that could be spent on roads. The rest was planned to be spent on edifices: things that look pretty but are functionally worthless. Like rail systems for passenger transportation.

  8. Freelance Unbound:

    I am not advocating that Arizona State Parks turn off the lights and throw the keys to a private company

    Are you sure? Sounds like a good plan to me...

  9. Benny The Man:

    Public parks are a toughie for a libertarian like me. No public parks? Okay--but that means condos on the Grand Canyon.
    But if I say, "Yes, the Grand Canyon is special, so it is a park," then the next guy can say "Yellowstone," and the third guy some sand dunes and on down the line. It becomes a popular vote on what is a park.

    Another tough one: Should people be allowed to sell goods on public sidewalks? If you say no, you are saying the state can regulate commerce in public spaces. If you say yes, than that means guys selling prono videos, pot and hookers can hustle on the streets.

    Actually, libertarianism doesn't always work. It is easier to be a Republican who smokes pot.

  10. SEO 成果報酬:

    Under this condition, if I were you, I will choose to hand it over to a private company. At least, it can keep the parks open.

  11. Benny The Man:

    In America, just leaving parks open would mean low-life people living in parks (in the campgrounds you wanted to visit), chopping down trees, and throwing trash everywhere, and hunting where people are hiking etc.
    Wild pigs could get introduced, or sheep, and they destory everything. Anything valuable, such as lumber, petroglyphs, petrified logs etc would be plundered. Humans would defecate into drinking water supplies.
    Why not go into Yellowstone, shoot the bison for their meat, skull and hides? It is cheaper than working for a living.

  12. BillB:

    There are other areas in which this little drama is being played. Our local library is running a significant deficit, and has cut staff and operating hours significantly.

    A company which operates with a business model similar to yours, except in the field of library management, has submitted a proposal to operate the system under contract.

    They propose to extend operating hours to match those before the cuts, hire all existing staff (at current salary levels), and provide medical insurance. The only difference is that the staff would no longer accrue the public employees pension, being given a 401(k) plan with a match.

    The outrage from the left is incredible, and looks to be successful in making the county supervisors back off the idea, although this will inevitably lead to branch closures and more cuts in hours. The fact that an experienced corporate organization knows that it can expand services with only the savings from the incredibly expensive California public pension system says volumes.

  13. O Bloody Hell:

    > I never understood how you “close” a park? I mean, it’s an outdoor, public use space.

    Well, to play Devil's advocate, by "closing" it they nominally eliminate some substantial portion of liability -- "use at your own risk" pretty much says "Sue Me!" to tort attorneys.

    If you're camping in a closed park and a tree branch falls on you and breaks your arm, there is much less grounds to sue the land-owner (the government, in the case of public land) for cause.

    In other words, the actual, underlying answer to "Why...(insert question here)?" is "money".

    > Actually, libertarianism doesn’t always work. It is easier to be a Republican who smokes pot.

    Actually, I believe the way in which parks can be set up and still be largely libertarian is by using donated land. Then it just becomes a maintenance fee question, and private supervision like our blog host is the answer to that.

    If the government sold all federally held lands, then a consortium could buy them and donate them back to the government specifically for public use purposes (and lands already donate to the fed would be exempt, and already available for a set-aside for this purpose.

    Then, all that has to happen is that enough people need to get together to pay the best price for the land in question. For serious park areas, like Yellowstone and/or the GC, there would be enough interest in doing so that it would happen for the most part. As long as you didn't suddenly do this, then there would be a steady supply of moneys for the purpose from those who live in the areas and/or believe they should be preserved unchanged.

  14. Bill Brown:

    I just visited your Wing Mountain Snow Play Area twice over the long weekend and I was very impressed at how inexpensive it was, how friendly were the staff, and how plentiful were the facilities. There were two long rows of portable toilets, for example, and I've never been to a public park where there was more than one fixed, disgusting bathroom.

    Personally, I think that private companies couldn't do any worse than the government does and would most likely make the park experience much more pleasant.