Privatize National Parks

Privatize National Parks

In August, the National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate 100 years of service. Unfortunately, its centennial anniversary will be soured by the fact that it deferred $12 billion worth of maintenance. As the NPS expands and ages, these inevitable costs continue to stack higher each year. 

To regain its footing, reduce its backlog, and lessen the burden placed on American taxpayers, NPS should consider an unlikely solution: outsourcing park management. 

NPS’ to-do list is growing every day as it continues to acquire new land, creating more parks that require federal funding. But park operations haven’t improved or become more efficient and resources are thinning with the addition of each park.

Deferred maintenance is when routine maintenance isn’t performed on time, making facility conditions worse and more costly to restore. The Park Service claims that a lack of resources is to blame for the growing backlog. But even billions of dollars won’t solve the problem.

In 2003, members of Congress discouraged national park expansion as long as budgets remained steady. Since then, more than 30 new parks have been established and budgets have decreased. All the while, maintenance projects keep mounting.

National parks are in an economic and environmental bind. Contradictory policies have inflated NPS operational costs, consequently damaging ecosystems surrounding parks. But the NPS doesn’t suffer from poor performance the same way private businesses do. When parks don’t meet consumer expectations, taxpayers are still forced to fund their operations rather than exercise the option to take their business elsewhere.

Privately-managed parks may be the way to boost efficiency and reach profitability. NPS has already outsourced lodging and food, and private park management has been successful for many state and city parks.

Parks in Montana and Alaska have turned over more operations to private organizations, and there are organizations comparable to the NPS that are completely private. The American Prairie Reserve and the World Land Trust use private funds to preserve and protect natural resources, free of government funds.

The history of Seattle’s Ravenna Park illustrates the difference between public and private management. As a former privately-operated park, Ravenna was lush, clean, safe, and family-friendly. In 1910, city government purchased the park. Soon after, a city master-plan was put into action that built a road going through Ravenna. The road required engineers to reroute Ravenna Creek into an underground sewer, which caused Green Lake to dry up. Bridges were later added and historic trees were logged. The park is now often described as “a ghost of its former self.”

This example demonstrates the powerful incentives that markets create. Government organizations don’t have the proper incentives to operate efficiently. When existence is ensured, efficiency is often lacking.

While not all government parks are bound to fail, the NPS maintenance backlog is a clear-cut example of federally managed folly. Allowing private organizations to manage the maintenance, fees, and landscape of parks (while remaining under the ownership of the federal government) makes economic and environmental sense. Outsourcing management will allow NPS to focus on long-term goals while consumers can experience beautiful and well-kept parks.

Kelli Reeder is a recent graduate of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. She works as a communications associate at a free-market think-tank in Utah.

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