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 “The current model of a highly centralized state-run park system is obsolete,” the Little Hoover Commission report finds.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: