Roadmap to Privatization

This post relates pretty directly to the events surrounding the preservation efforts of the historic buildings at Sandy Hook, NJ in the Gateway National Recreation Area. For background on the story, read Kurt's recent synopsis at the National Park Traveler, or for a sense about how upsetting this story is for some, read the letter in this Park Remark post from earlier this month.

George Write ForumIn email today, I was sent an excellent essay titled "From Public to Private: Five Concepts of Park Management and Their Consequences" [pdf], written by Thomas A. More, identified as a Research Forester with the USFS out of Vermont. It looks as if the essay appeared first in the George Write Forum published last summer (Volume 22, #2). The name of that particular issue is "Privatization: An Overview" and also includes essays written by Bill Wade, a member of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and an essay by Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness.

If you have time, print off the More essay and read it over lunch today. I'd copy-and-paste the whole article here, but it's a bit long at 3,500 words for a blog post. So instead, let me try my best at a snapshot of some key points argued by More. At the heart of the piece are 5 management models ranging from a fully public model to a fully private model. Which of these models is the NPS following today, and which are they employing at Sandy Hook, and on the whole, which direction on this scale do you think the NPS leaning?

1) Fully Public Model
Under this model, park management is considered a legitimate government function and should be fully funded through taxes. Criticisms of this model are that nonusers of park services still pay, that there is no incentive to control costs, and that it is slow to respond to changing public demand. An advantage to this model is that unprofitable goals like historic preservation or ecosystem integrity can be readily undertaken.

2) User Fee (Public Utility) Model
With this model, park users are asked to pay some of the operational costs. Making parks financially self-sustaining is a primary goal so nonusers have no tax burden. Fees are socially regressive, discouraging use among lower-income people. Fees sap the social importance of parks. Fees also increase pressures for facility development. Parks dependent on these fees are subject to market fluctuations, and may be left in a vulnerable position.

3) Outsourcing Model
This model differentiates between the need for a service and its production. Competing private firms help to keep costs low and maintains system flexibility. Private contractors must make a profit, and often rely on low-wage employees and pay fewer benefits as compared to the government. Outsourcing may offer short-term savings, but the long-term consequences are uncertain.

4) Private Non-Profit Ownership
This model includes private ownership of parklands by groups like the Nature Conservancy or the National Audubon Society. Since the public sector has no inherent role, nonusers have no tax burden. Since these organizations must be financially self-sustaining, the costs must be borne primarily by their members. Non-profits have an omnipresent need to raise money, leaving them vulnerable to economic fluctuations. In consequence, some have developed close ties with industry and the potential for commercialization exists.

5) Fully Private Model
Individual firms purchase and operate natural areas on a for-profit basis. Full privatization provides all the efficiency of the market with no cost to the taxpayer. Only parklands capable of producing profit would be protected. Improvements could include shops, restaurants, and other focal points to enhance profit. No concession is made for ecological integrity or public access. The ability to exclude those not willing to pay the price is essential to privatization.

Thomas More makes a very strong conclusion that must be included here verbatim:
How can the public be shifted from an ideal of parks as fully public to one in which they are operated increasingly under a market-driven, private system? The answer, of course, is a series of intermediate steps - user fees, public-private partnerships, the use of the business vocabulary, the development of (and increasing reliance upon) "friends" groups, etc. - each of which moves the parks a bit further from the fully public model towards the private. After each step, the public has been given a chance to adapt - to get used to the idea. And each step has had vigorous advocates ranging from liberals who want better funding for parks to conservatives who want smaller government. Managers and agencies are central to this process. In the past, the agency managers, starved for budgets, have argued vigorously in favor of such programs. Yet, by now, the direction of the changes must be clear. It is certainly possible to advocate for further privatization of public lands, but agency managers must do so with a clear understanding of the consequences of such changes - of where they are leading. Should public agencies advocate increased fees? Should they help form "friends" groups to undertake maintenance tasks for which no public funding is available? Should agencies encourage private operators to provide services that they can no longer afford to provide?
The answers to these questions are ultimately addressed by "we the people". How do you think the folks at Save Sandy Hook would respond to More's last question?