One way to reduce costs and improve service in national parks is to turn some operations over to those more adept than government at handling them, such as privatizing campgrounds, suggested Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, in speaking to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, recently. “As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds. My folks will never be as good as you are.”
Zinke said, “We are going to have more public-private partnerships soon. I think that’s where the industry should be going.” The proposal comes as a means to address $11 billion in backlog of maintenance facing the National Park Service (NPS).
NPS also plans to overhaul the roles and responsibilities of its workforce, said Zinke. “We’ll be looking at where our employees should be spending their time,” he said. “Yes, cleaning the bathrooms. But actually running services, that’s something we should be pushing to somebody who’s updated and knows the market better.”
President Trump’s budget proposal would cut more than 1,200 full-time positions from the NPS if Congress approves the document.
Typically, a concession contract is like a commercial lease. The concessionaire signs a contract allowing it to run the campground or facility for profit, and then pay the public entity a rent in the form of a percentage of fee revenues. Often the concessionaire is responsible for maintenance and improvements.
Zinke said he is a great fan of such public-private partnerships – because they work. He explained that his agency manages public lands that represent 20% of the territory of the United States. Those same public lands contain most of the country’s energy potential as well as outdoor recreation opportunities and the challenge is to not only have the two interests coexist, but for the former to pay for the latter.
Zinke noted that as recent as 2008 the department gained $18 billion in revenue from companies drilling for oil in the nation’s offshore reserves, but last year that figure was just $2.6 billion because the previous presidential administration disallowed drilling in 94% of the nation’s offshore reserves.
“We would have caught up our entire backlog (of deferred maintenance) in all park units, plus have $3 billion to reinvest, in one year. That’s the scale of what occurred,” he said.
So the focus over the next several years will be on making infrastructure improvements — which includes campgrounds — and developing ways to pay for it through public-private partnerships as well as leveraging the nation’s energy potential both off and on shore.
Most campgrounds in national parks were developed during the Eisenhower era and have not been updated for the more modern camping experience. They need new infrastructure.
Opponents of the plan question whether the deferred maintenance backlog is as great as the agency estimates. Some also view the “partnership” as a selling off of the national parks to private companies, who do not always fulfill their commitment to maintain the facilities, despite making hefty profits. The needed maintenance is then pushed back upon the taxpayers by Congress.
Going forward, concerned groups say, “Congress and the Trump administration should not make private-sector handouts at the expense of public-interest investments. Concessionaires, not taxpayers, must be responsible for the maintenance of the facilities…”
“I’m not an advocate for selling or transferring public lands. I am an advocate though of multiple use, public access, and making sure that we develop an experience in our children so when they get older they look back and there’s a tie to outdoor experiences and they want to repeat them,” Zinke said.