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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Is Privatizing National Parks the Solution to Sustaining Them?

2016 is the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS), and in February the agency got a present from the biggest tech company in the world – or, more accurately, the world got a present from Google and the NPS: On February 11th, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell hosted an event at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site to announce a Public-Private Partnership between Google and the NPS. The partnership created an online museum, home to thousands of artifacts, artworks and records from NPS sites. You can also check out 360-degree street views of National Parks and museums.

This is a high-profile partnership. But behind it, there’s a debate over just what Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) can do for our National Parks.

Our under-funded National Parks face overcrowding and degradation. As millions flock to parks, a backlog of maintenance remains undone, to the tune of $11.9 billion. This includes waste cleanup and removal, and maintenance on roads, bridges and buildings. The NPS can’t keep up because Congress has only been able to appropriate about $3 billion a year for funding, while the cost for maintenance continues to rise.

PPPs could step in and do for maintenance what Google is doing for exposure: Ramp it up.

National Parks and privatization

Already there are myriad cases in which companies partner with the NPS. For instance, travelers who stay at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, MT, might not know it’s owned by a company that partners directly with Glacier National Park and the NPS. The company, Glacier Park, Inc., runs multiple historic lodging destinations in and around the park, as well as a shuttle.

Elsewhere, the Denali Backcountry Lodge offers a bus into Alaska’s Denali backcountry, where cars aren’t allowed. Alaska Denali Travel, a private entity, runs the lodge and the bus. It partners with Denali National Park and Preserve, as well as the NPS.

Both Glacier Park, Inc. and Alaska Denali Travel are divisions of a multi-national company — Viad Travel & Recreation, which could definitely afford to maintain these parks on the whole.

The NPS needs help with management and maintenance. But the only thing keeping companies such as Viad from striking up a management contract with the NPS is the NPS itself. According to the NPS Transportation Innovative Finance Options document, “federal statutes and NPS policies place limitations on these types of partnerships [PPPs]”.

The case against PPPs

I think I can speak for plenty of people when I say, we don’t want brands advertised all over our National Parks. As you’ll see when I delve into the case for PPPs, that’s not so much the issue. The bigger question is, would companies compensate their employees appropriately and treat them fairly?

Hypothetically, if a private company runs a park, that company stands to benefit from several economic conditions:

  • Lower admissions prices — especially among the largest, most popular parks, lower fees would mean more visitors
  • Lower employee wages — in order to undercut competition by charging less, companies may opt to pay their employees less than what current NPS employees make

Unless the federal government passes new minimum wage regulation or specifically mandates a starting wage for privately employed park employees, companies would have economic incentive to pay employees less.

According to Glassdoor, even an intern for the NPS makes an average of $16.32 an hour. In comparison, a concierge at the Glacier Park Lodge makes around $9 an hour — hardly a livable wage.

With workers across America struggling to get a $15 minimum wage, can you picture a private company paying as well as the NPS, and providing the level of benefits a federal agency provides?

The case for PPPs

The World Bank is one big proponent (among many) of PPPs. The Bank — whose official stated mission is to rid the world of poverty — promotes foreign investment, international trade, and Capital Investment as well.

In an article for the World Bank, National Forest Recreation Association president Warren Meyer presents some of the benefits of PPPs:

  • Private workforces are more efficient and less expensive than civil servants — NPS employees get paid year-round although most parks are open seasonally
  • Privatizing park management keeps parks from being “pawns in government budget battles”
  • 100 percent of private revenue comes from visitors, not taxpayers
  • Private organizations can’t just throw their brands up (“build a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful”) because the NPS would still have the final say-so
  • Generally, private companies would charge less for Park access

Meyer provides his own company’s (Recreation Resource Management) operation as an example. California State Parks charges $30 to camp, while Recreation Resource Management charges no more than $20 for the public campsites they operate. Those facilities, he claims, look no different than any other (in other words, they’re not branded).

The future of our National Parks

Meyer and the World Bank both have vested interests in PPPs. Based on their word, we can’t say for sure these partnerships are the best way to go.

We can look to an independent source, though. PERC is the Property and Environment Research Center, “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.” In 2013, PERC’s Shawn Regan testified to the U.S. Senate Committee about how Meyer’s organization helped turn Arizona’s crumbling State Parks around. According to Regan:

“In addition to earning a profit, the company often generates revenue back to the state agency by reducing management costs and assembling a more flexible labor force. Visitor comments are generally positive and many are simply unaware that park operations are run by a private company. The company has invested in maintaining and replacing infrastructure to improve the park experience.”

Is this PPP model, which 11 states had already implemented at the time of Regan’s testimony, the future for our National Parks? Without a doubt, more seasonal workers would be one result. But another result would be a financial burden displaced from the federal government.

Whatever the case, conserving our National Parks is the goal. Many arguments point to the benefits of privatization, but if this results in Park employees not being paid enough, that’s part of a much larger debate. But for the sake of the Parks, let’s hope the organizations involved see all the incentives for valuing their workers and paying them accordingly. Our Parks will benefit all the more from it.


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