This weekend the Los Angeles Times editorial board published a piece entitled "Keeping All State Parks Open," (available online here) supporting public-private partnerships (PPPs) to save California’s state parks. The piece identifies and endorses two existing successful policies that California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman is considering expanding:
- Cause marketing agreements with private companies, which would allow targeted brand promotion without jeopardizing park aesthetic; and
- Whole park concession agreements, which would allow the state to lease state park operation to a private non-profit organization, local government or for-profit company.
Both of these policies are having a positive impact on California’s state parks and serve as encouraging evidence that the 270-park system can be inoculated from painful budget cuts in Sacramento.
First, in the case of cause marketing, the Los Angeles Times cites the recent partnership between Coca-Cola and Stater Bros. The companies replanted trees in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Chino Hills State Park after both parks suffered devastating wildfires earlier this decade.
The supermarket chain promoted offers in which the purchase of $10 worth of Coca-Cola products would result in a donation of $1 to state parks. Customers were invited to donate an additional small sum at the store. Over three years, $2 million was raised. In exchange, very modest renditions of the companies' logos are included at the bottom of interpretive signs in the parks.
Next, it’s important to recognize that whole park concession agreements are different than service concession agreements. According to Parks Department spokesman Roy Stearns, there are over 190 park service concession contracts in California's state parks system providing lodging, retail and food services. Private companies also provide park service concessions in the crown jewels of the national park system, including Yosemite National Park, Tahoe National Forest, Sierra National Forest, San Bernardino National Forest and others.
However, the Los Angeles Times identifies the more robust form of concession: whole park concession agreements. I describe this model in an Orange County Register op-ed entitled “Don’t Close State Parks; Lease Them,” (available online here) published this past May:
Some facilities, like Tecopa Hot Springs County Park in Death Valley, operate under whole-park concession agreements, a remnant of California's once-innovative past where the state leased some parks to private companies.
Under these lease agreements, recreation companies manage and maintain the parks. The government can set any quality and maintenance standards it desires and hold the private company accountable to them with a performance-based contract.
This approach is currently being explored in Arizona, where state parks officials issued a RFI (Request For Information) asking private operators to provide “feedback and recommendations regarding the feasibility of transitioning or enhancing various operations at ASP with the private sector.”
Whole park concessions prioritize environmental conservation, ensure accountable public oversight and ease the fiscal constraints facing lawmakers across the U.S. The Los Angeles Times recognizes that cash-strapped Sacramento has no viable alternatives and concludes:
At a time of fiscal crisis, these outside agreements are a good deal. In fact, they’re the only deal. The closure of parks, especially, is a bad solution to the budget shortfall because it could very quickly cost the state far more money than it saves.
It's nice to fantasize that, if parks were left to themselves for a few years, nature would recover from routine human trampling. In truth, most of the parks would still be used, but only by people who don't respect "Keep Out" signs. Illegal off-roading, backcountry campfires and meth labs could cause devastating wildfires. Marijuana farms and other illicit activities could increase crime in surrounding communities.
Just as it is doing for outside operating agreements, the parks department should draw up strict guidelines for corporate partnerships to avoid logo creep. And then it should be praised for not just sitting by while parks close, but seeking out innovative ways to keep its natural gems accessible to the public. That's not as good as robust public support for parks, but it's the best California has at the moment.
They're right to be concerned over the negative impact of closing state parks. In fact, there are a myriad of problems that would arise if the 70 parks that have been proposed for closure are shut down, for more on this see my previous post here. For more on parks PPPs, watch the video below entitled “Prop 21: Why Californians Don’t Need A Car Tax to Save Their State Parks,” produced by reason.tv: