National Parks, Privatization, and Cappuccino

My first reaction to this article about a bunch of National Park Service retirees with their undergarments in a wad about privatization was, “come on, seriously?” The NPS wants to team with the private sector in a competitive process to enhance, modernize, and improve the Gateway Arch site in St. Louis, and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees isn’t too happy:

CNPSR Executive Council Member Don Castleberry said: “First we saw the attempt to ‘privatize’ a portion of Valley Forge and now the target is the the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. We have to draw a line now and say that national parks are not up for sale. Eero Saarinen’s iconic design, which is one of America’s most recognized and admired monumental features, attracts over 250,000 visitors annually. The surrounding grounds are planned to complement and provide for the backdrop for the monumental Gateway Arch. They are an integral part of the design and should not be turned over to a private entity.”

You’d think they were trying to build a new visitor center, bookstore, and administrative complex in the middle of the Grand Canyon to facilitate a new transit system or something like that—oh wait, that already happened. And most people probably don’t realize that private concessionaires operate the lodges, restaurants, stores, tours and activities in the “crown jewels” of the NPS: Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Petrified Forest and Rocky Mountain, to name a few. Having stayed at at least four of them over the last year after relocating to Arizona, I can offer a personal opinion that the quality of services are excellent. Two weekends ago I celebrated my birthday at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, enjoying superb facilities, dining on quality steak, salmon & the like, and—the true indicator of happiness for me—enjoying the finest cappuccino that I’ve had since a trip to Venice this past spring (surprising, as I’m a true coffee snob). Bliss to me is climbing out on some rock outcrops with stunning views of the Canyon, with a cappuccino in hand and nothing but time to sit and enjoy. Then a nice fire and tasty grub in a rustic lodge when things get chilly at night. You can’t find all of that in many parks, but I haven’t been disappointed yet in the privately-run ones. I’d call that customer focus. Not exactly government’s strong suit. The NPS concessionaires have strong track records and numerous environmental awards, etc under their belts. So the sky is hardly falling under privatization. Quite the contrary—the privately run national parks I’ve been to are vastly improved in my estimation from my first round of visits many years ago. So I’m not too concerned about the Gateway Arch. In fact, when all is said and done, I may have to make it a point to visit, grab some java on site, and soak up the scenery. If the kooky retired bureaucrats don’t gum it all up, that is.