Revisiting America’s Best Idea: Privatizing the Parks!?

By John O. Sullivan

“The national park idea was originally conceived by ordinary citizens, and new additions to the system can almost uniformly be traced to citizen advocacy. This makes the parks a genuine public institution.”
Robert B. Keiter, University of Utah Law Professor

These are troubling times for the National Parks. Decades of chronic underfunding has left our National Parks System with a $12 Billion maintenance backlog. The Parks Service has arrived at a critical crossroads between conflicting goals of its mission: Access and Preservation. Movements by State Republicans to decertify Bear Ears National Monument in Utah and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine threaten individual parks, but one ever looming, increasingly popular idea threatens the parks as a whole: Privatization.

The premise is simple. Like some sort of mutant McDonald’s franchise, private businesses would be allowed to purchase the rights to manage national parks locations, taking on the expenses of maintaining and operating a National treasure, while taking in the income of gate receipts, concessions, and gift shops. Theoretically, this management would all be under parameters and guidelines set by the National Parks Service.

This is a monumentally stupid idea.

This process is already underway. Political pressure for parks to be more self-sustaining has led to the proliferation of mining and logging, the construction of hotels and golf courses, and even corporate sponsors on public lands. The privatization movement looks only to be growing, fueled largely by a decades-long government obsession with efficiency which has demanded government agencies produce more with less, forcing park management professionals to seek out private partnerships to keep the lights on.

As I have written before, the key, quintessential, feature of the National Parks System is its fundamentally democratic nature. The National Parks belong to all of us equally as Americans. They are our birthright. The expansion of privatization of the parks can only erode that fundamental principle. Full privatization and reduction of the parks to commercial enterprises regulated by the National Parks Service would be completely ruinous to that principle.

Even the current level of private use of the parks is concerning. Many of the activities that occur on public lands, from mining to logging to cattle grazing, can be damaging to the land itself. There are ways to mitigate the damage, but there’s only so much you can do when your end objective is to extract chunks of copper ore from the earth. Theoretically, the U.S. Government is compensated for these activities, but studies have shown that land use fees charged by the government are rarely competitive, and are usually mere fractions of the market rate. This begs the question, why are private companies profiting from the parks at the public’s expense?

Total privatization is even more concerning. Imagine the sight of signs emblazoned with corporate sponsors welcoming you to the National Parks. “The Samsung Grand Canyon” or “Wells Fargo presents: Yosemite.” Besides embarrassing, private operation of parks is incredibly problematic. The National Parks operate at a loss. Even with concessions and admission revenue and donations, their current income levels would not allow them to maintain operations without government funding. Profit-driven companies will inevitably find every possible way to cut costs and raise income to make a profit. Admissions fees will likely rise, along with campground fees. Critical services will almost certainly be cut. The risk of land mis-use, development, or sale would certainly rise greatly. This is not a prejudiced indictment of Capitalism, nor is it mere ungrounded conjecture, it is simply reality. These things would have to happen to balance the books of National Parks and put them in the black. The Parks Service has not done them because it is not profit-motivated, and a profit-motivated private company would almost certainly do these things.

And these things, the raising of visitor costs and the cutting of programs and services, would almost certainly be damaging to the National Parks. This would not only diminish the “park experience” for visitors, possibly causing safety risks, but it would also make visits far more expensive, putting them out of reach for many Americans, which is antithetical to the very purpose of the parks.
The National Parks System represents a simple and core principle of our nation. As Americans, we are all equal participants in society. We accept the rule of law which (theoretically) applies to us equally; we get (again, theoretically) equal voice in the government which determines those laws; and in return we receive a wide range of protections to varying degrees. Protection from murderers, protection from foreign threats, and most importantly, protection of private property rights. But some things are simply too great to be owned by any one person or company. This is the role of the National Parks System. The National Parks Service preserves our nation’s greatest natural wonders and most historic places, “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” There is no room for privatization there. Those principles cannot coexist with privatization, which is literally defined as “to make exclusive; delimit or appropriate.” The Parks are certainly facing many problems, problems which will require a national dedication and creative thinking to solve, but privatization is not the answer. The natural wonders and historic places enshrined in the National Parks belong to all of us, with the Parks Service as their stewards. To privatize means the parks belong to only some, rather than all.

Feature Image of Bear Ears National Park courtesy of National Park Service

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