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Like No Other Park in the System (I Hope)

eltonlin Photo

"Named must your fear be before banish it you can," says Yoda. Was he talking about national park privitization? He stands guard in front of the Lucasfilm Letterman Digital Arts Center in the National Park Service managed Presidio. eltonlin photo via Flickr

Let's start with a little park trivia. Where in the national park system will you be able to view materials illustrating the vision and legacy of Walt Disney? No, I promise this isn't a trick question. Here's a hint, it's at the same park where you can go to stand in front of a sculpture of Yoda and reflect about galaxies far, far away. Honestly, this is a real place in the parks, in fact, it is inside the second most visited park unit in the country. OK, last clue, this park is currently accepting Requests for Proposals to build a public museum to display the private collection of contemporary art belonging to Doris and Donald Fisher, the co-founders of The Gap. If you haven't guessed yet, take some time and play a round of golf, maybe the answer will come to you.

If your answer is the Presidio, you nailed it. Located at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio is a former Army base that was transfered to the National Park Service when the base closed in 1994. Quite a gift. The trouble is, the yearly maintenance bill for the 469 historic buildings is far more than Congress has given the park to spend. The solution from Washington was to make the Presidio the first park in the system to operate self-sufficiently. If it isn't turning a profit by the year 2013, the entire base could be turned over to developers.

Earlier this week, I wrote a summary of the Presidio story for the daily newsletter. The story, "Trading Spaces: The Park Service Turns Over the Presidio to Private Parties", covers some of the costs and consequences of the operations game in the park. The article provides a "backgrounder" of sorts of how privatization entered the picture at the Golden Gate NRA.

At the end of the Frommer's article, I suggest that if the money-making plans at the Presidio succeed, it wouldn't be hard to imagine similar plans being created for other historic structures in park units around the country. What I didn't mention in the article, is that a similar type of development plan is under way on the other side of the country in New Jersey, at Fort Hancock in the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Things haven't been going as well for the private developer at Fort Hancock. Nearby residents are fighting tooth-and-nail to stop the development inside their park. Plus, the developer has munged things up so badly, that now the Inspector General is looking into the 60 year lease agreement signed with the NPS. Congressman Frank Pallone described the entire lease and development process as a debacle.

Longterm lease agreements for private developers? A Walt Disney museum? Managing the park for profit? Little public accountability? These places feel less and less like they are operated in the best interest of either the public or the parks.


The park is not one continuous locale, but rather a collection of areas that stretch from northern San Mateo County to southern Marin County, and includes several areas of San Francisco.

For starters, how would science in the parks be handled? Currently, the NPS has its own science arm that addresses this across the system. I realize it's not perfect, that it is hamstrung by a lack of staff and funding in many areas.

However, if the system were to be broken up into dozens of independent units managed by NGOs, who would take over the science, both on a per-park basis as well as across the entire system?

That is a very good question, Kurt, as are all of your questions, and I must admit to not having all the answers. As far as federal law goes (i.e., endangered species), state, regional, and city parks must abide by these statues. If scientific management in national parks could be decentralized, it would come with long-term benefits. For instance, some have noted the current administration's propensity to censor and suppress science, and with land management and funding depoliticized, those practices would be effectively ended.

And what about the law enforcement responsibilities? Would these simply be contracted out?

Another good question. In urban parks or parks close enough to urban centers, local authorities could assume many responsibilities. Large, remote parks would present different challenges. One possible answer is for each park to hire and/or train their own protection rangers.

I assume there are experts with more concrete answers and plans, and I shall continue to research various views and ideas.

Thank you for your questions; they merit serious consideration.

Reform the National Park Service!

*Yawn* Is every conversation on this website going to be turned to the privatization/NGO topic? Fear mongering goes both ways, ya know...

I've played the 9-hole course at Yosemite. It's not all that enjoyable or memorable. It should revert to meadowland.

And please -- if you're going to point out others' speling [sic] mistakes as some sort of cheap shot, don't make any of your own. It's Xanterra, by the way. If you're annoyed by me pointing that out, please consider refraining from doing the same to others, and I will too.

-- Jon

In Zion they had a similar situation several years ago when the contract for the Zion Lodge (also held by Xantera) came up for renewal. There were many in the local community and in the NPS that were suggesting that the Lodge should be closed and the buildings converted to another use, possibly into a training center or used as housing and office space for employees and volunteers or maybe all of the above.

The original reason that the Zion Lodge had been built by the Union Pacific (talk about your benevolent corporation) in the 1920's was that there was no lodging or food service available in the nearby pioneer village of Springdale. Today the situation is far different with the town having a wide range of lodging and restaurant options which rank it right up there with Salt Lake and Park City in the quality of both in the state of Utah. It was felt, by many, that the original reason for the Lodge had ceased to exist and that it was now unfairly competing with local businesses with a big helping hand from the federal government.

The Lodge was also known as a place that was notorious for its criminal activity and the shady character of many of its employees. These concerns were pushed aside as Xantera was able to appeal directly to the Utah congressional delegation for the needed political muscle to continue to operate their low quality business in the heart of Zion Canyon.

Locally the Lodge is a joke and no one in Springdale would ever steer a visitor that way when they know that they could sleep or eat at other, much better, venues in town. It does, on the other hand, keep the green & gray police officers busy busting Lodge employees for meth sales, assaults and larceny. One particular year in the late 90's it accounted for over 40% of the felony arrests in the park. It's certainly been good for justifying an increase in law enforcement spending at Zion, but really not much else.

"As long as politicians control park regulations and funding, certain groups (including corporations) will pressure the government for preferential treatment and our parks will suffer." I agree Frank.

This is definitely a very intriguing and thought-provoking discussion. I have, however, a question or two for those promoting the turning over of parks to NGOs.

For starters, how would science in the parks be handled? Currently, the NPS has its own science arm that addresses this across the system. I realize it's not perfect, that it is hamstrung by a lack of staff and funding in many areas.

However, if the system were to be broken up into dozens of independent units managed by NGOs, who would take over the science, both on a per-park basis as well as across the entire system?

And what about the law enforcement responsibilities? Would these simply be contracted out?

Of course, a huge question revolves around funding. Would you have Congress simply continue the revenue stream and divide it among the NGOs, which in turn would supplement that by instituting new fees and raising existing ones?

Jim, you are absolutely right in stating that it's a false dichotomy.

Furthermore, there is a third alternative; "privatization" doesn't necessarily mean turning parks over to corporations. As I've stated before, others have built a strong case for trusts and non-government organizations which would help prevent both government and corporations from spoiling national parks. We already have NGOs in parks in the form of cooperating associations, and they've proven to be highly effective and efficient non-profit organizations.

Speaking of corporations, it's particularly affronting that corporations, such as Xantera, give such a small percentage of their revenue back to the parks. The Crater Lake Company, Xantera's predecessor, was contracted only to give 1-3% back, but when I worked there, the contract was up for revision, so for for several years they were under no obligation to give any profits back. Corporations are already embedded into our national parks, and profit is already being made in national parks.

With trusts and NGO management, a much higher percentage of revenue collected in parks (from hotels, campgrounds, gift shops, restaurants, etc.) could go to support park operations.

As long as politicians control park regulations and funding, certain groups (including corporations) will pressure the government for preferential treatment and our parks will suffer.

Reform the National Park Service!

Of course, all of this govt. vs. privatization misses the point that the national parks and private businesses have been in partnership since the very beginning and that there probably isn't a piece of the parks that hasn't been contracted out at some point to some private corporation.

It's a false dichotomy; either way, most of us don't have a lot of say about what goes on unless we have the dollars or the political influence (oh, I forgot - they're the same thing).

The railroads wanted the government to set aside national parks because they didn't want anyone to cut in on their action. Of course, some would celebrate this because they ended up kicking out small businessmen who were destroying thermal features (for instance, in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone) by using them as baths for medicinal purposes. They kicked out hide hunters who were wiping out buffalo, but then they went on to poison all the wolves.

If you look at a lens from the largest actors to the smallest actors on this stage, incompetence and mismanagement abound. You leave it to government, and they rip apart forests, contract out hotels, stores, gas stations, build roads and turn parks into law enforcement zones. You leave it to corporations, and they monopolize interests, do all the same, and have to be accountable only to the segment of society that pays their bills and sustains their business. If you leave it to small businesses and individual entrepreneurs, they only pay attention to the needs of their particular business, and the rest be damned. If they happen to be stupid at what they do, they kill and destroy every last bit of their resource before moving on. No one has a monopoly on destruction. And, for all the good things that have been done, it only takes a few bad apples in any direction for irreparable harm to be done.

It's no small wonder that there's anything left in these places that are worth cherishing; remarkably and miraculously, there are. The places themselves are astounding in their ability to withstand all our management methods.

All this tells me that we aren't going to fix the parks just by seeing this as either government control or private control. A lot of other things are screwed up, too. I'd no sooner trust the corporations, the small entrepreneurs, or the government to best manage Yellowstone or the parks; in all cases, we're bound to make choices on a range of better and worse too narrow to be of any good to any of the parks as a whole.

We're playing with forces bigger than our minds. Tinkering with who gets to make ultimate decisions won't make much difference.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

If you want to see how privitation [sic] has destroyed a park...

All this talk about the evils of non-governmental management makes me laugh in light of the long history of DOI and NPS abuses carried out with taxpayer funds.

Golf course in a national park? Yosemite's got one, completed two years after the Organic Act (and while I'm not sure if that part of the park was in Yosemite in 1918, I'm sure that it is now, and the NPS perpetuates this "historic" feature of Yosemite).

Hotels? Please. The NPS surrendered parks to hotels and railroads (and later autos) long, long ago. At Crater Lake, $17 million of taxpayer money funded the complete rebuilding of the Crater Lake Lodge (it's a brand new building; almost nothing original remains) so that wealthy tourists can spend over $200 a night for a lake view.

How 'bout dams? The Bureau of Reclamation (a DOI agency) built the Glen Canyon Dam, which flooded countless archaeological sites far older than anything in DC. Then there's the O'Shaughnessy Dam, which flooded Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. It was completed in 1923 under the DOI at a cost of $100 million and 68 lives and stole the experience of a second Yosemite Valley from hundreds of millions of people.

Fear mongers never cite hard evidence that introducing non-governmental management and competition to the national park system would result in anything near the magnitude of egregious desecration carried out by the federal government over the last century. It's amazing that, in light of this long history of abuse, anyone continues to support federal mismanagement of our national treasures.

Reform the National Park Service!

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