Is It Time to Franchise Our National Parks?

For decades, the Property and Environment Research Center has extolled the virtues of free-market environmentalism. Could their ideas save our parks?

Oct 27, 2016
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With the National Park Service facing a decades-long maintenance backlog that has swelled to $12 billion, budget shortfalls, crowding complaints, and accusations of widespread sexual harassment, it might be time for an overhaul.    Photo: Eddie Hernandez Photography/iStockphoto

It feels wrong to have the words "franchise" and "national parks" in the same sentence. The pairing evokes images of the Golden Arches over the Grand Canyon and standing in line for a Frappuccino in the shadow of Half Dome. But with the National Park Service facing a decades-long maintenance backlog that has swelled to $12 billion, budget shortfalls, crowding complaints, and accusations of widespread sexual harassment, it might be time to consider a free-market approach.

That’s the pitch from the Property and Environment Research Center, a conservative think tank in Montana that claims to have a way to solve the budget woes: dissolve the Park Service in all but name and run each park as its own standalone business. 

Adopting a free-market approach would free each park from adhering to a national agenda subject to bureaucratic procedures, says PERC founder Terry Anderson. Currently, most of the Park Service’s budget comes from yearly congressional appropriations ($2.9 million in 2016). Under PERC’s proposal, each franchise owner would have an economic incentive to protect a park’s natural resources and provide improved roads, easier access, and better facilities to draw in more customers—and they could do it without all the red tape.

Say Yellowstone National Park wants to build a new bathroom in Lamar Valley to cater to more visitors or the park needs a little extra money to cover its ever-increasing operating costs. It currently has to get the approval of Congress and the president. As a franchise, on the other hand, the park could address those problems immediately. “It would still be called Yellowstone National Park,” Anderson says, “but in the office upstairs the owner would ask: A, are we living up to the franchise agreement? And, B, can we find more efficient ways to manage the park? Are we really giving the consumer the product he or she wants?”

They’d have the money to do it, Anderson says. As he points out in an August op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Yellowstone could cover its operating costs with an $11 daily fee for each visitor. (Currently, seven-day passes can be had for $30 per car.) The Great Smoky Mountains National Park—by far the nation’s most visited national park—currently has no entrance fees but could cover its operational costs by asking visitors to spend $2 each per day.

This isn’t the libertarian dream of privatizing the parks or transferring control of them to state governments that’s recently been tossed around by Tea Partiers and Charles Koch’s Cato Institute. “This is a serious strategy to add value to the NPS brand and protect new areas without spreading the NPS budget any thinner,” PERC research fellow and Montana State University adjunct instructor Holly Fretwell wrote in a 2015 report on the proposal published by the George Wright Society, an interdisciplinary non-profit dedicated to the parks and other protected places.
 
The theory goes that the Park Service, as we know it today, would take a backseat to each individual park owner. The government would still own the land and the name, Anderson says, and the Park Service could act as a sort of corporate office to maintain some broad, uniform operational standards.

“That franchise agreement [would say] you can charge prices and that you can run it for a profit,” Anderson says. “But there are certain things you can’t do. If you are a franchisee of McDonalds, you can’t tear down the Golden Arches and put up purple shooting stars.” But what about, say, installing a tramway over Old Faithful? “That would be an atrocity,” and, as such, outlawed by the corporate office, Anderson says.

Similar partnerships already exist. George Washington’s home has been maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for 150 years and environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society protect tens of thousands of acres, which the public can enjoy. But Anderson doesn't want to stop at non-profit organizations. Free-market incentives would drive each park to double down on what works for it and toss the rest, he says.

In an email, a Park Service public affairs officer said the service doesn’t comment on outside policy proposals and reiterated that the parks belong the to the American people. But mainstream environmental economists are not ready to dismiss this brand of free-market environmentalism. 

“I am not going to say that is a good idea,” says Matthew Kotchen, a professor of economics at Yale who focuses on the intersection of policy and public and environmental economics. “But I could see how you would think that would be an interesting thing to consider.” 

Budget shortfalls may be just the sort of problem free-market environmentalism is capable of solving, because of its comparably modest scale and number of parties involved. And as Kotchen points out, parts of the parks are already privatized. Over 500 Park Service concessioners have contracts to run food, lodging, and transportation services as well as tours and equipment rentals. But relying on the free market to address bigger environmental problems like air pollution in parks wouldn’t work, Kotchen says. “I can’t think of one example where it would work on a large-scale problem.”

There is more to be gained from our national parks than economics. The Park Service wasn't formed to function as a revenue source, and the natural beauty and experience can't be measured with any metric of economics. Under PERC's model, what's to incentivize individual owners to encourage outdoor ethics or to foster appreciation for nature among a diverse demographic of visitors? Doesn’t privatization undercut the guiding principal of the parks to protect our nation’s most spectacular places for future generations to enjoy? Anderson doesn’t think so. 

“We can couch our arguments in the context of intrinsic values,” Anderson says, but in the end, it’s us with all our needs and desires that have to make these decisions. “The question is, where do we fight out those competing demands? Do we do it in a market place or do we do it in the halls of Congress?” 

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