Some outdoor industry advocates looked at Ryan Zinke and thought they saw a friend to outdoor recreation. They were wrong. In June, the Interior Secretary recommended sharply reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument—a move not unprecedented, as other administrations have trimmed monuments (Eisenhower, Truman). Now the Montanan is under pressure from corporations that want more privatization of national parks, and he seems to like the idea.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds. My folks will never be as good as you,” Zinke recently told a lobbying group for the RV industry.

Concessionaires are putting the full-court press on the Trump administration to turn more Park Service operations over to private hands. They envision running campgrounds, collecting fees, grilling burgers and fries for the millions who visit parks every year—even providing armed, private cops—taking out tidy profits rather than seeing the money invested back in the parks as it is now. And with an administration that is lukewarm on parks at best, they might just get their way: The National Park Service has no leader, Trump has not chosen a replacement, and his proposed budget would gut the annual NPS allotment, slashing almost $400 million from a $3 billion budget. (Meanwhile, the Park Service faces nearly $12 billion in a maintenance backlog.)


As a place to reduce spending, the national park system isn’t the wisest choice. For every dollar the government spends on parks, it gets almost $11 back—the kind of return that would make even a real estate mogul take notice. National parks contribute $32 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and 9 out of 10 Americans don’t want their budget cut (yes, that includes Democrats, Republicans, and independents).

This administration, of course, has so far proven immune to public sentiment, and the park concessionaire lobby, unlike the outdoor lobby, probably does have a friend in the White House.

“Why is it inherently a Park Service responsibility to clean toilets, pick up trash and take reservations for campgrounds? Is that something that the agency has a particular expertise on, is it in their wheelhouse?” said Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association, whose members include giants like Aramark and Delaware North.

The Interior Department acknowledges the idea appeals to the new leadership. “The secretary is interested in innovative solutions that allow our park rangers to focus on things like land management and interpretive services and bring in partners who want to make investments into our parks to manage other aspects of the visitor experience and help address the maintenance backlog,” spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Hill. “We already have thousands of public-private partnerships that are already happening in parks and federal lands, expanding the best of the best and looking at new solutions should not be off the table.”

Photo of North Cascades National Park by Andy Porter

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