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Save Our Parks! How to Keep National Parks Open During a Government Shutdown

As part of the government shutdown that started October 1, the National Parks Service has closed all U.S. national parks and monuments. Would-be visitors will be denied entry to Yosemite and Yellowstone and acres and acres of national park lands until the government resumes business. Economics professor Holly Fretwell suggests an alternative that would have enabled parks to stay open despite the government shutdown.

She recommends leasing our national parks to entrepreneurs who would be responsible for managing the maintenance, campgrounds, trails, and infrastructure in the parks. The private management company would have to adhere to strict parameters, maintain low admission fees, and would pay the federal government for the right to lease the management of the parks. Under such a system, our national parks would generate income for the government instead of costing the government money to run. If this system were already in place, the parks could have stayed open during the shutdown.

You may feel skeptical about a private business’s ability to manage and maintain the beauty of our national parks, but private businesses currently manage thousands of public recreation areas and campgrounds and nearly half of all Forest Service campgrounds. Most campers who use these public lands don’t even realize they are managed by private companies. Private management for our national parks would make them accessible to visitors even during the government shutdown, and could make our parks revenue generators for the government.

Here's the link to the case study, which the video is based on.


And here is another case study by Holly Fretwell on funding parks:


Other links you could consider using are below:


Taking State Parks Off the State's Books [report]: PERC’s Leonard Gilroy argues that states should explore the opportunity to let private operators run the technical operations of state parks while paying the state for the right to do so


The National Parks: America's Best Idea [report]: PERC’s Brian Yablonski offers market-based solutions to preservation and functioning of our national park system


Testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on "Funding the National Park System for the Next Century," July 25, 2013 [article]: A host of ideas, presented to the U.S. Senate on how to effectively fund and operate existing national parks


Save Our Parks! How to Keep National Parks Open During a Government Shutdown
America's state and national parks are being threatened by political battles over budget cuts. What gives? Our parks are well loved and receive over 1 billion visits annually. So how can we save them?
I’m Holly Fretwell. I teach economics at Montana State University and my research focus is environmental and natural resource issues. I live in Montana because I love the outdoors. I love to ski and fish and hike and bike, and I can often do it right outside my own door. But I also like to use our public lands. And for years I’ve researched how we can better protect these resources, and the conclusion that I’ve reached is one that you might be kind of skeptical of. We can save these public places by putting them under private management.
I understand the skepticism. Many people fear that profit is synonymous with greed and overuse. How can a private business be trusted to be a steward of our public lands? But let's get this straight. I don’t mean selling them off the highest bidder. What I mean is to lease them to an entrepreneur under very strict parameters. It works like this: the park remains publicly owned but the maintenance, campgrounds, trails, and infrastructure are leased for a limited time period to a private management company. The private company is contractually bound to not only be a responsible steward and protect the park’s environment, but to meet underlying agency goals, such as keeping admission prices low and accessible to the public.
If they break the terms of the lease, they lose the lease. Additionally the management company pays the government for the lease. That means the park is no longer a political liability that drains public funds. Instead it’s a money generator, helping these parks to stay open. Given the lease restrictions, we don’t have to worry about prices skyrocketing, or Ferris wheels and golf courses springing up in Yellowstone. The private manager's goal is to make a profit, and they can only do so by responding to visitor desires.
What most visitors want when they visit these recreation areas is an unspoiled natural experience at a low price. It’s in the interest of the private provider to deliver just that. In this way privately managed parks have an advantage over those that are government run. Entrepreneurs have better incentives to reduce costs and invest in infrastructure improvements that will attract more visitors, and they have the ability to be more responsive to local conditions. With fewer bureaucratic and budgetary hurdles to jump, they also have greater flexibility to find more efficient solutions to problems.
Private management has already been successfully used in thousands of public recreation areas and campgrounds across America. In fact nearly half of all Forest Service campgrounds are managed by private entrepreneurs. Most campers don’t realize this, because unlike some campgrounds on private lands that are very glitzy, these campgrounds protect the wild and scenic amenities. These examples demonstrate how we can protect our parks and keep them accessible to all while shielding them from future spending cuts. Instead of being political pawns, our parks can be the jewels they were intended to be and remain open and protected for generations to come.

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16 Comments

  1. Matt Wavle

    I don’t understand why the federal government should own ANY land.  The states should sell it off at the best price that they can get, without any restrictions.  The new land owners will then have a reason to maintain and even increase the value of their land.  – also yearly property tax ought to be abolished, it’s like paying yearly rent on something that you already own.

  2. Daniel Pealer

    The sad thing is that during the so called "shut down" the government
    worked hard to shut down even privately owned and operated parks like
    Mount Vernon. They were successful at shutting down the privately
    managed government owned parks.

  3. TateFegley

    This reminds me of when I was at a hearing where members of the public would give testimony regarding whether federal lands in Idaho should be under state control instead. Many who were opposed to the idea said that Idaho couldn’t afford to manage the lands. This puzzled me for two reasons:

    1) It’s not like the federal government isn’t broke.
    2) Isn’t land a productive asset? It seems that only government management can turn something that should be making money into something that costs money.

  4. Andrei-Claudiu Roibu

    I never imagined that a public-private deal can be reached so that natural reservations and national parks can be saved, and even, made to be prosperous. I was proved wrong… Enjoy ! 

  5. spacepan

    I think she’s charismatic and engaging, but she could be making a stronger claim here. Don’t compromise with statist terrorism; we don’t need any amount of government involvement here.

  6. Anonymous

    Even though I think this is a better option than publicly owned and managed parks, the restrictions the government sets on the managers can have unseen and counterproductive effects. Assigning a lease to an entrepreneur is still giving someone the monopoly rights to the park, which ensures inefficiency. 

  7. Dabriel Graham

    But why not fully privatize them? Why should the government dictate how individuals use these lands?

  8. Paul Huffman

    I believe this is primarily because of how the natural wonders on the East Coast looked at the time we began the National Parks program. Niagara Falls is the prime example: it had been so overrun with people trying to make a buck off of it that it had become an eyesore. Even today, the Falls are only “pretty” to Americans because we see the Canadian side. From Canada’s vantage point, the Falls are still trashed. 

    When looking at the Grand Canyon for the first time, TR said “man can only mar it” and he was correct. Even Brigham Young supported the preservation of the “timber on the hills and the water in the streams” around the Grand Staircase. 

    All of that said, there are things the NPS does that are quite wrong: the obsession with stopping natural fires and not pursuing controlled burns creates great danger from wildfires for surrounding communities. 

    I would encourage you to read up on how Yosemite almost became fully trashed prior to Muir’s advocacy to protect it. 

    Also, check up on Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice” — I believe maintaining the Parks for posterity is much more acceptable than enacting a ground rent payout.

    Of course, I’m a bit biased in all of this. The parks, I believe, are what make everything West of the Mississippi much more beautiful than the remainder of the country. Otherwise, the Rockies may very well have been blown to bits decades ago for a bit of coal, and the Colorado would glow at night from radioactive discharge from mining operations.
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