Don’t Close State Parks; Lease Them

Partnering with the private sector to save California's state parks

California’s ongoing $15 billion budget deficit means the government should be looking to cut expenses almost everywhere. But on public service continuously draws the shortest stick in budget negotiations: state parks.

Last year the state closed or deeply reduced services in 150 state parks. The Legislature in March approved $11 million in cuts to state parks in the next fiscal year and $22 million in cuts in future years.

Friday, state parks officials announced the closure of 70 parks from among the 270-park unit system. The department said service reductions at the listed parks will begin this summer, with closures beginning in September and all listed parks closed by July 1, 2012.

With the state’s perpetually tight budget, funding for education, health care and the state’s powerful prison guards union usually get top priority, leaving parks typically out in the cold year after year. The state has let the parks deteriorate to the point that they now need $1 billion in repairs and maintenance, according to the California State Parks Foundation.

There are currently two proposals being discussed in Sacramento to help keep more parks open. Senate Bill 356 would require the state to give counties and cities a chance to take over operations of closed state parks in their areas. SB386 would require the state to post a notice if it plans to close a park and list contact information so that anyone interested in taking over its operations can contact the government and get a response.

There are private companies out there that will see California’s parks wasting away and envision a way to bring them back to life. Some facilities, like Tecopa Hot Springs County Park in Death Valley, operate under whole-park concession agreements, a remnant of California’s once-innovative past where the state leased some parks to private companies.

Under these lease agreements, recreation companies manage and maintain the parks. The government can set any quality and maintenance standards it desires and hold the private company accountable to them with a performance-based contract.

For example, in one privately operated U.S. Forest Service park in Florida, the contract requires workers to use canoes to move about the park and all maintenance must be done entirely with hand tools (e.g., no power tools, chain saws, etc.) so the park’s environment isn’t disturbed.

Some Californians oppose the sale and complete privatization of state parks. But under these public-private partnership leases, the state maintains complete ownership of the parks. Anything the state wants done at the park can be put into the contract, and if the private company fails to deliver it can be fired.

The companies collect park user fees to fund their operations, maintenance and labor costs. And they pay a set percentage of revenue back to the state as an annual lease payment. This offers the opportunity to minimize, or potentially eliminate, taxpayer subsidies to the parks, while keeping them open for public enjoyment.

The private sector is already a major part of California parks, providing lodging, retail, food services in parks across the state. According to Parks Department spokesman Roy Stearns, there are over 190 park service concession contracts in the state parks system. Private companies also provide park service concessions in the crown jewels of our national park system, including Yosemite National Park, Tahoe National Forest, Sierra National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest and others.

Other states are actively moving to protect their parks through these types of lease agreements. Last year, Arizona asked private companies to present creative proposals on how they would enhance operations at state parks. And now the state is evaluating ideas submitted by six different companies.

The government has let California’s treasured parks waste away long enough. The government doesn’t have the money to keep all its parks open, let along the additional $1 billion needed for repairs. Instead of closing parks, bureaucrats in Sacramento should recognize they’ve failed taxpayers and the parks. It is time to invite private companies to run and rehabilitate them.

Harris Kenny is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation (, a nonpartisan Los Angeles-based think tank. This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register on May 13, 2011.