Trump Administration Wants More Private Operation of Public Parks. Here Is What That Would Require

A lot of people have been asking me about Secretary Zinke's statements about encouraging more private operation of parks.  First the good news, its a great idea.  Here is my standard 400-word essay on why:

Should National Park’s be privatized, in the sense that they are turned entirely over to private owners?  No.  Public lands are in public hands for a reason — the public wants the government, not, say, Ritz-Carlton, to decide the use and character and access to the land.  No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a common fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned.

However, once the agency determines the character of and facilities on the land, should their operation (as opposed to their ownership) be privatized?  Sure.   The NPS faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance.  It is crazy to use its limited budget to have Federal civil service employees cleaning bathrooms and manning the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job so much less expensively.  The US Forest Service, for example, has had private operators in over a thousand of its largest parks for nearly thirty years, and unlike state parks agencies or even the NPS, it is not considering park closures or accumulating deferred maintenance, despite having its recreation budget axed.  Why? Because its partnership program with private operators is a fundamentally sounder, lower-cost approach to park operations.

In fact, such public-private partnerships are nothing new for the NPS.  The NPS was an early innovator in this field, and currently private companies operate many of the visitor services in parks, such as lodges and gift shops.  The US Forest Service innovation, which has been copied by many agencies including most recently California State Parks, has been to turn over operations of the whole park, not just the lodge, to a private company.  These are highly structured contracts, wherein the private company cannot modify the facilities or change fees without agency approval, and must meet a range of detailed performance goals.

Most critiques of private park operations center around quality and fees.  While there certainly have been some isolated failures, in general the results have been quite good.  In Arizona, a recent poll by ranked the top 10 public campgrounds in Arizona.  Of these, three of the top five were US Forest Service campgrounds run by a private operator, as was the top Arizona campground in Sunset Magazine’s “Best of the West”  (OK, I have to brag, these are all run by my company). As for fee concerns, state-run parks in California charge $30 for a no-hookup camp site.  Privately operated public campgrounds in California forests seldom charge more than $18.

My company operates over 150 state, county, and federal parks.  I encourage you to take the “Pepsi Challenge” and see some of them for yourself.  They are well-run, generally with more staff than a typical state park, and have no significant deferred maintenance backlog.  Oh, and not a single one has a McDonald’s, a billboard, or a neon sign in front of a national monument.

Now for the bad news:  I am skeptical any progress will be made, for several reasons.

  1. The rank and file of these organizations are generally against private operation of any of their functions.  For a couple of reasons.  First, people who work in government tend, through a self-selection process, to be people who are more confident in government solutions and more skeptical of private solutions.  Second, agency leaders are seldom judged on things like efficiency or customer service.  I read and act on every single negative review that comes in for our operations.  It is impossible to imagine the head of Arizona State Parks (which is about the same size as our company in terms of revenue and visitors) doing such a thing.  Agency leaders get their pay and prestige based on the size of their budget and headcount, and private outsourcing even of non-core functions works against this.
  2. Overcoming this skepticism takes a lot of hard work, organizational work the Trump Administration has shown itself either unable or unwilling to undertake so far.   As a minimum, change requires messaging that engages the rank and file, not just the Republican base.   In most lands agency, it would also require that they scrap their insanely useless (but time-consuming) planning processes in favor of a real portfolio planning process that assigns recreation lands to different customer segments (e.g. wilderness experience vs. high development) and then explicitly addresses where private capital and operating efficiency could help.

The good news is that I think there is a path to success.  The privatization message should offer real benefits agency personnel care about (and I am pretty sure tax reduction is not one of these).  Privatizing things like bathroom cleaning would allow the agency to stop overpaying for routine non-core tasks and allow it to free up resources for things its employees (and the public) are passionate about, like addressing the enormous deferred maintenance account in most lands agencies and reversing crumbling infrastructure in parks.  Most agency employees joined with recreation or environmental science degrees and don't want to clean bathrooms or deal with angry customers anyway.

For the public, recreators who like a lot of infrastructure and facilities are natural supporters of private operation and bringing in private capital to public lands, but the most passionate advocates for public lands are disproportionately folks who want wilderness experiences and distrust development.  That is why having a portfolio management process for public lands is so important.  The Forest Service, for example, makes every campground they own in the west look the same.  I can close my eyes and tell you what your Forest Service campground looks like even if I have never been there.  This is crazy.   Create something like a "Wild Camping" label and attach it to a subset of the portfolio and don't allow any development.  Even remove development.  Then have other sites for more developed camping.   Maybe sites that focus on first-timers or kids.  Maybe lower-cost value sites.  (People always assume that as a private operator, I want to develop everything, but I don't.  Sure I have places where we have cabins and showers and electricity at every site.  But I also operate pure primitive sites with no power, water, or even cell service.  Hell, in some ways I like operating the latter better -- less to go wrong.)


  1. CapitalistRoader:

    No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful...

    Similarly, many of us don't want the federal government to have anything to do with Old Faithful, and it makes me sick to see federal employees there instead of Wyoming state employees or contractors managing that attraction. People wonder why the western states are filled with 'libertarian kooks'. This is why.

    Give that ownership to the states, where it belongs.

  2. Joe:

    Those worried about a McDonald's in front of Old Faithful probably don't realize the Old Faithful Lodge complex already has a restaurant in front of it.

  3. SamWah:

    State employees have pretty much permanent employment, so NATURALLY state parks don't like the competition.

  4. Max Bnb:

    National Parks: The Super-Rich's Greatest Idea
    The national parks are not America's greatest idea. They are the super-rich's greatest idea . . . for themselves.
    The super rich love nature. Anyway, they love owning big chunks of nature. But they face competition. The masses can buy property right next door. Land developers buy up acreage and build condos or even worse, time-shares. Then Mr. and Mrs. Sack Lunch buy the condos and move in. They litter the area with themselves.
    The super-rich want privacy. This is one of the three identifying marks of being super-rich today.
    The super-rich like to buy low, watch it appreciate, and then never sell. They do not like price competition. So, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. devised a plan to get this. He began this just after the turn of the century in 1900. He bought up property in Maine. So did his peers – the younger super-rich. Then they gave the surrounding land to the National Park Service.
    This was for The People. The People could come and visit, but they could not come and stay. The People are allowed to marvel at the scenic beauty. "If only we could own a piece of this!" they think.
    Comes the answer from the family estates: "Too late, suckers!" That puts them in their place. That is a big part of being a card-carrying member of the super-rich. You put others in their place. The secret is to keep them from finding out how you do it. So, you fund "The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea."

  5. marque2:

    Pretty decent food there as well, for a federal park anyway. And I doubt the Federal government is doing the cooking, they probably contract out that work. Yes you can dine, and watch old faithful out the windows if you like.

    The thought about McDonald's occurred to me when I visited the park with my family several years back. Didn't realize concessions were so close to the geiser.