Many states continue to face difficult finances, often to the detriment of operations and maintenance of state parks. A case in point is Louisiana, where the budget allotment for the state Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism-which includes funds for state parks-has dropped considerably in recent years, with parks absorbing $12 million of the department’s cuts. At the same time, state revenues from user fees fell short of expenses in all 22 Louisiana state parks in FY2015, providing just $9.3 million in revenues against $15.7 million in expenses, according to the Louisiana Department of State Parks.
Recent legislation offers a potential solution to Louisiana state parks’ funding woes. Senate Bill 143-passed by both chambers in May nearly unanimously and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June-would allow the state’s Secretary of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism to lease or sell state park lands to private entities. While outright sales may be unlikely, leasing out the management and operation of state parks to the private sector is a concept that may seem unusual, but has been used by federal and state agencies to manage public parks and recreational facilities for decades, often with similar fiscal challenges as a motivating factor.
At the federal level, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) relies on a lease/concession model to manage over half of its hundreds of recreation units (more precision is difficult since the USFS keeps no comprehensive, public database), with most arrangements dating back to the 1980s when the agency was faced with budget cuts threatening the close of many sites. Ongoing budget woes led to the threat of reduced operations or shutdowns in 150 of California’s 280 state recreational areas (SRAs) in 2010 and 70 of its SRAs in 2012, ultimately leading the state to utilize several types of innovative arrangements with private and non-state entities to manage public parks-including private concession management, nonprofit operation and donor-supported operations. Today, California State Parks (CSP) has five state parks or SRAs under private concession management, with many more being operated or financially supported by nonprofit entities.
While the issue of private management over public parks raises understandably raises skepticism and concerns over control and operations, as this sample CSP concession agreement (contract) demonstrates, public-private partnerships (PPPs) for the operation of public parks include thorough provisions and clear information about expectations and benchmarks about operations, advertising, acceptable charges and fees, park maintenance and a litany of other factors agencies need to consider in entering such agreements in order to protect the public interest and ensure that parks are operated in accordance with the public agency’s mission.
Without a drastic transformation in the financial management, Louisiana’s state parks will continue to suffer. The PPP model has the potential to not only make transformative changes, but to turn state parks into self-funding entities. The federal government and California are already seeing benefits of privately-managed parks, after struggling with funding issues similar to Louisiana’s present ones, avoiding closures and service reductions at dozens of parks and recreational areas. PPPs literally offer a lifeline to state parks threatened with closure or chronic neglect, given their fiscal predicament.
With Senate Bill 143, the Gov. Edwards and state lawmakers appear to show that they are eager and willing to explore similar options to help save Louisiana’s state parks, and should be applauded for doing so.
For more information on state park PPPs and how they can offer a win-win to cash-strapped state parks agencies, please see Reason’s 2015 policy study, Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks Through Public-Private Partnerships, as well as our 2013 legislative memo, “Rethinking Washington State Parks.”