Privatizing state parks

It’s a way to save the marginal ones

The author is CEO of the California Parks Co., based in Red Bluff, and president of the California Parks Hospitality Association, a trade association representing the interests of state park concessionaires. He is also a former chairman of the California Chamber of Commerce.

The prospect of state-park closures is again in the news. Many state parks do not have to close, including many dear to the hearts of Butte County residents like Bidwell Mansion, Bidwell-Sacramento River Park and Lake Oroville. There are private-based alternatives that should be considered before closing any parks.

The failure of Proposition 21 last November made it clear that, no matter how much Californians loved their state parks, they didn’t want to pay additional taxes to keep them open. They sent a clear message: Find another way!

The truth is that many state parks lack the historical, natural, cultural, recreational or economic significance to be a state park. They should be adopted by nonprofits, local park agencies or other sympathetic agencies. Lacking that, they could be bundled geographically with larger, financially more successful units for management by professional private concessionaires.

Private enterprise has demonstrated nationally that it is capable of assuming many functions within parks, including fee collection, maintenance, interpretation and even limited security, while overall park supervision remains with a state parks superintendent. The savings can be as significant as 50 percent, while the average may be more like 30 percent of overall operating costs.

Many privately managed approaches can raise significant new funds for state parks, such as automated 24/7 fee-collection pay stations at entrances, parking lots and showers; development of yurts, tent cabins and park models in existing campgrounds; promotion and development of park-appropriate special events including concerts, competitions and spectator events; and new types of tours, recreational and interpretative programs that appeal to new audiences.

It is in the DNA of entrepreneurs to invent new ways to stimulate revenue. Private capital will flow when opportunities for return on investment are given.

These private-sector approaches can be accomplished at little to no cost. They are not panaceas, but privately financed successes elsewhere indicate that most criticisms are unfounded. Almost all private companies operating in our public parks have a significant environmental ethic—they don’t want a McDonald’s on top of Mount Rushmore any more than you do.

If we muster the political will to honestly consider new ideas from the private sector, park closures and deteriorated parks need not be inevitable.