Reason Foundation

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Bacon's Rebellion

Taking State Parks off the State's Books, Part 2

Do we need a public sector monopoly on the operation of public lands?

Leonard Gilroy
June 24, 2010

My last column (see "Taking State Parks off the State‚??s Books," 4/14) explored the concept of long-term concessions with private recreation management firms for the operation and maintenance of state parks, generating reader feedback ranging from supportive to skeptical. Such polarization is understandable given that the proposal represents a novel and emerging paradigm in public land management that‚??s altogether different than the norm today, characterized by a public sector monopoly on the operation of public lands.

In many ways, the situation for state parks today is analogous to the early days of the U.S. market for privately-financed toll roads and other transportation infrastructure in the late 1980s. The completion of pioneering private road projects like the Dulles Greenway and the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond began to chip away at the stale paradigm that only governments should finance and operate highways. This cleared the way for over two dozen states to enact laws advancing the expanded use of transportation public-private partnerships (PPPs). By 2010, Texas, Florida and Virginia alone have highway PPP projects in development representing over $10 billion of private capital investment, and these and other states have begun to use PPPs for the private operation of other public assets in education, corrections, mental health, and numerous other fields.

There‚??s no inherent reason to treat state parks any differently. Though these state land assets serve a variety of purposes (ecological, preservation, etc.), perhaps the most visible and fundamental‚??and the one that generates the bulk of park system revenues‚??is the recreation enterprise. Users pay to enter parks and use camping and other facilities. Federal public land authorities like the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and National Park System figured out years ago that while ecology and land preservation were core competencies, running recreation enterprises was not. As such, these agencies began rapidly expanding their use of private sector recreation management concessions over a decade ago.

Advancing this concept at the state level requires addressing several of the myths and misconceptions that emerged among various readers' comments on Part 1:

Some of the above myths are simply fear-based, while others are mantras espoused by turf-protecting park bureaucrats. Either way, policymakers should not be misled. Sacred cows and protected silos are always unhealthy in government, but especially so in a time of widespread fiscal crisis. If there‚??s an opportunity to reinvent state parks in a way that preserves their character while increasing the fiscal sustainability of the parks system itself, it should behoove policymakers to at least explore it.

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director, Pension Integrity Project &
Director of Government Reform

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