Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks through Public-Private Partnerships

Yesterday we had the privilege of having our new policy study—”Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks through Public-Private Partnerships” (Parks 2.0) —published by the Conservation Leadership Council (CLC). Our paper is one of six commissioned by CLC on a range of environmental topics intended to offer a set of actionable recommendations that focus on private sector and market-based policy initiatives reflecting the CLC’s principles of limited government, community leadership and public-private partnerships.

The papers were launched yesterday at an event hosted by CLC in Washington, D.C. that included Gale Norton, former U.S. Interior Secretary and former Colorado Attorney General; Ed Schafer, former U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former North Dakota Governor; and Lynn Scarlett, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior (and former Reason Foundation president). The event was recorded by C-SPAN and is available online here.

Parks 2.0 acknowledges that the ongoing fiscal challenges facing state governments are creating an existential crisis for state parks. With budgets stretched increasingly thin, state parks must compete for limited funds with other (usually higher) policy priorities like education, health care, public pensions and public safety. These budget pressures have prompted policy makers in California, New York, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts and other states to close or significantly reduce services in hundreds of state parks, or at minimum reduce parks budgets, nationwide. In other states, like Washington and South Carolina, governors and legislatures have recently launched efforts to require parks to become self-sufficient to wean them off state appropriations, in seeming recognition that parks funding will increasingly be crowded out by other spending priorities.

Yet state parks remain popular while their maintenance needs continue to worsen; according to America’s State Parks Foundation, state parks received 725 million visitors at over 6,000 sites around the country in 2010 alone. Can this popularity be turned from a cost into a benefit? One way to keep state parks open without imposing additional burdens on the taxpayer is to utilize public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Many states already successfully use private concessionaires to provide piecemeal services within parks—including food, retail, lodging, marinas, and other commercial activities—so a shift to more extensive involvement can build on that. Such a whole park operation PPP would transfer the responsibility of maintaining the park to a private operator, while enabling that operator to raise revenue through entrance and other fees. The U.S. Forest Service has used this PPP model for over 25 years to operate thousands of its developed recreation areas nationwide, and in 2012 California began the first state to turn over the operation of state parks to private recreation management companies to avoid closure.

Parks 2.0 seeks to describe such a PPP model and explain how it can best be applied to the operation of state parks. Reason Foundation has been on the forefront of this issue for years, both by conducting research and engaging in policy implementation. For example, last year we outlined the state of California’s decision to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for private operation of five state parks. Our Annual Privatization Report 2011: State Government Privatization detailed steps taken towards partnering with for-profit and nonprofit operators for state parks operation across the U.S. And a 2010 ReasonTV video suggested that PPPs, not a proposed new tax on car registration, offered a more sustainable solution to the state’s park funding challenges. Watch the full ReasonTV video below:

To learn more about the Conservation Leadership Council visit their website and watch the CSPAN event here. To learn more about Parks 2.0, read our study “Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks through Public-Private Partnerships,” available online here and visit Reason Foundation’s Parks and Recreation Research Archive here.