Saving California State Parks through Public-Private Partnerships

Last weekend, the Orange County Register ran an op-ed of mine making the case for more privatization in California State Parks. I say “more” because last year the state turned over the operation of dozens of its state parks to private, nonprofits—as well as another handful to private, for-profit recreation management companies—to avoid the closure of these parks, keeping them open for public enjoyment. Here’s an excerpt of my column:

A recent report from the Little Hoover Commission recommends paring back the agency and devolving some of its key functions—most notably, the operation of parks themselves—to third parties. “The current model of a highly centralized state-run park system is obsolete,” the Little Hoover Commission report finds.

It calls for a new operating model that includes expanding the role of outside partners in the direct operation and management of state parks. These outside partners would include other governments, nonprofits, and for-profit companies.

Many taxpayers may be unaware that in 2012 California successfully turned over the operation of four state parks to for-profit park management companies. The state signed a five-year lease with American Land & Leisure, a Utah-based recreation company, to take over the campground and day use operations at three Central Valley recreational areas (Turlock Lake, Woodson Bridge, and Brannan Island). It also handed over operation of the Central Coast’s Limekiln State Park to the California-based Parks Management Company.

In doing so, the costs of operating and maintaining these parks was transferred from taxpayers to the private operator. The companies pay all operating costs. They also pay a pre-determined percentage of the revenues collected at those parks back to the state as rent, which is put into a park maintenance fund to cover upkeep costs.

State parks have suffered from a cycle of neglect and perennial budget games in Sacramento, but they now have a path to sustainability.

This is far from radical or unique. As I noted in the article:

Private, for-profit management of public parks isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s been happening in U.S. Forest Service (USFS) areas within California and across the country since the 1980s, when federal budget cuts threatened their closure. Private management has kept them open for decades. According to a January report released by the Conservation Leadership Council that I co-authored, recreation management companies currently operate over half of the USFS’s thousands of developed recreation areas (e.g., campgrounds, day use areas) nationwide under lease agreements, including over 100 each in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Other western states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada each have dozens of parks under private operation as well.

For more on this topic, see:

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.

The project aims to promote solvent, sustainable retirement systems that provide retirement security for government workers while reducing taxpayer and pension system exposure to financial risk and reducing long-term costs for employers/taxpayers and employees. The project team provides education, reform policy options, and actuarial analysis for policymakers and stakeholders to help them design reform proposals that are practical and viable.

In 2016 and 2017, Reason's Pension Integrity Project helped design, negotiate and draft pension reforms for the state of Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Corrections Officer Retirement Plan, which both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gilroy is also the Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation, researching privatization, public-private partnerships, infrastructure and urban policy issues.

Gilroy has a diversified background in policy research and implementation, with particular emphases on competition, government efficiency, transparency, accountability, and government performance. Gilroy has worked closely with legislators and elected officials in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, California and several other states and local governments in efforts to design and implement market-based policy approaches, improve government performance, enhance accountability in government programs, and reduce government spending.

In 2010 and 2011, Gilroy served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Arizona Commission on Privatization and Efficiency, and in 2010 he served as an advisor to the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, created by Gov. Chris Christie.

Gilroy is the editor of the widely-read Annual Privatization Report, which examines trends and chronicles the experiences of local, state, and federal governments in bringing competition to public services. Gilroy also edits Reason's Innovators in Action interview series, which profiles public sector innovators in their own words, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and more.

Gilroy's articles have been featured in such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business, CNBC, National Public Radio and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Reason, Gilroy was a senior planner at a Louisiana-based urban planning consulting firm. He also worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Gilroy earned a B.A. and M.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.