Late last year, when a high-profile proposal to privatize some services at national parks went public, the reaction came quickly.
The Department of the Interior, which manages most federal land, had formed a committee of recreation industry representatives in 2017. In October 2019, the committee proposed privatizing campgrounds, limiting senior discounts, and adding expanded Wi-Fi, food trucks, and Amazon deliveries. The proposal was met with such resistance among environmental groups—and the public—that the department ended the committee less than two months later.
This was merely a flashpoint in a controversial debate that’s been bubbling for decades. The cash-strapped National Park Service (NPS) is saddled with a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog; the recreation industry has said it can manage some park services better and cheaper. And environmental groups call for close scrutiny of privatization initiatives in order to maintain the original mission of conserving parks and their resources.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting discussion—and might upend the debate altogether.
Should parks be privatized?
It’s a thorny question, sparking heated debate since the creation of the first national park.
Some cases of privatization can be called successes. Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, for example, protects important plant and wildlife species in large part because the nonprofit Nature Conservancy was able to buy land from willing ranchers when NPS couldn’t finalize a deal. After budget cuts forced Alabama to close a state park in 2015, a company called Recreation Resource Management (RRM) was awarded a contract to reopen and run the park. But privatization often meets with stiff opposition: Recent plans for a massive, privately-funded prairie reserve in Montana have angered locals who feel pushed off the land they’ve worked for generations.
Weighing a stance is especially complicated because privatization itself can take so many forms. There’s no single model; while some protected areas are made up of privatized land, national parks comprise public land that relies on privatized services.
These services—the campgrounds, bathrooms, lodging, catering, equipment rentals, and other amenities needed to operate a park—were the focus of the Interior Department committee’s proposals.
“Does [NPS] really have to operate the lodge? Does it have to operate the campground? Does it need to clean the bathrooms? Does it need to pave the roads?” asks Warren Meyer, owner of RRM, which operates about 150 recreation areas on public lands. “There’s a lot of things in there that it doesn’t necessarily need to do.”
Campgrounds—NPS controls 1,421 of them—often form the front lines of the privatization debate. Meyer says that at a privatized campground, visitors could not only expect regular maintenance but also new amenities: Think glamping, tiny rental homes, and cabins.
But Emily Douce, director of operations and park funding at the National Parks Conservation Association, counters that a park may want to keep running its own campgrounds in order to interact with visitors and keep an eye on operations.
“The presence of a park service ranger has many benefits, from educating to seeing what’s going on and making sure that people are being responsible,” Douce says, adding that the privatization of ranger positions would be a cause for concern.
“Their mandate is to make sure that the resources are protected and that the visitors are educated about that site. And so if you privatize those, there’s a concern there that some of that would be lost,” she says.
Meyer agrees that while private companies could manage some tasks, removing wilderness management or park rangers from NPS hands would be almost impossible.
So who gets to decide? It’s up to each national park to choose what privatization measures are best for both visitor experience and resource management, says Douce. Meyer emphasizes the importance of the public’s ability to weigh in on decisions.
“If the public is not going to retain management of the use and access and character of the land, then they might as well sell it,” he says. “There’s no point in giving that up because once you give that up, why do you even have the land in the first place?”
The coronavirus outbreak’s influence on the debate remains to be seen.
Right now, federal and state governments are focusing spending on COVID-19 responses. Douce says it’s likely that the NPS’s federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year will remain level compared to last year, though federal funding decisions are far from guaranteed. Another challenge comes from lost park revenue as a result of the pandemic, which could affect the national parks’ already lean maintenance budget.
“We are working with many others to try to influence the stimulus packages [under consideration] to see if we can get the money back to the parks that has been lost and will be lost,” Douce says.
Communities have called Meyer to discuss how to keep state parks open. He says federal agencies could take longer to get to that point, but he expects that financial constraints from COVID-19 will make privatizing services at national parks more enticing. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure to say, ‘Geez, us cleaning the bathrooms of national park campgrounds with civil servants is a luxury. We need to find other ways to do those kinds of things.’”
But it will take time, manpower, a new contract template for concessionaires, and opportunity for public comment—presently a challenge, as such meetings are being postponed because of coronavirus.
To be sure, the government should not make privatization decisions during the pandemic, Douce says. “We need people to be involved,” she says, and right now, “they’re focused on just dealing with everyday changes with the virus.”
Adina Solomon is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who covers a range of subjects, with specialties in city planning/design, business, and death.