Industry Makes Strong Push to Privatize Some National Park Services

Would you like KOA to run Yellowstone’s campgrounds? The new administration is open to creative, win-win ideas.

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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Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 7 comments
  • Chris

    this would be one of the stupidest moves of this administration…. and that’s saying quite a lot.
    we seem to be entering a period of political action that the first half of a term is spent undoing what the previous administration did. How long can that continue?
    seems to me there are certain parts of society that we WANT the government running; education, the military, transportation safety, prisons and public parks.

  • jim

    really bad idea to put a corporation in charge of anything that is supposed to serve the public’s interest/ownership of public parks. the bottom line is what drives a corporation is not public interest/needs. not saying that is bad or good it just is.

  • Fred

    yeah, remember with Delaware North cooperation (former concessionaire) at Yosemite NP, filed for copyrights for a bunch of the names in the park = theft from the american people and our public lands heritage – that’s why.

  • Steve Prawdzik

    If Disney ran the parks, they would be clean and well cared for and you would have a fantastic experience. Maybe it’s time to be more open minded. The wonderful people at the National Park Service are straddled by government bureaucracy and excessive regultations that are self serving. Remember that the parks belong to we the people. The parks collect more than enough revenue to meet the backlog of needed projects. The real problem is that the f’ing political idiots we have in Washington raid the pot of gold that is collected for their other projects and return what’s left to the park at the rate of pennies on the dollar. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the parks were run by the private sector we could cut off the Washington greed and inefficiencies and let the private sector run the parks like a business and reinvest the revenues collected back into the parks instead of Obama phones.

    • Mike

      If I wanted a Disney experience, I would go to a Disney park. This notion that only the government has bureaucracy and greed and it is somehow lacking in the private sector is simply not supported by current and past corporate behavior. And what makes us think that private sector profits would go back into the parks and not their shareholders? I go to the parks to get the hell away from the rest of society that has been overrun by corporate greed.

  • Ed

    Let’s say the corporate world started running the day to day operations of the parks. What would be the result? 1. maximize profit from all services. Prices for entrance fees, campgrounds, hiking permits, shuttles and much more would increase. 2. cut services and wages to save on labor costs. 3. Increase the amount of advertising and sales of crap to the park going consumer. 4. minimize the amount of money flowing back to the parks by greasing the campaigns of friendly members of Congress.

    Please leave the public land trust alone! Increase the budget for the parks and leave the corporations out of it. Everything need not be a generator of profit.

  • J

    “‘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.”

    He makes sound like they’re doing agencies a favor, when they’re sucking revenue right out of the American people’s pockets and crippling agencies’ ability to reinvest in recreation sites. Why would they even be interested if it wasn’t lucrative for them?

    The reality of the concessionaire/land management agency relationship is landlord/tenant, except the tenant collects 90+% of the rent and is not responsible for most repairs. The agency is responsible for any major fixes, like water & septic systems, paving, drainage, etc., yet can only invest a small portion of the overall revenues back into the site. The rest goes into the concessionaire’s pockets, and it will only go back into the site if the agency has enough manpower to monitor them closely and make them make repairs.

    In contrast, a site managed by the agency keeps 95% of the revenues on the park or forest. This money is used for repairs, workforce, and improvements to the site.

    Concessionaires have their place, running camp stores or leading horse rides or selling snow cones at a swimming beach. But we should not be turning entire recreation sites over to them. If you want to keep parks and forests affordable and well-maintained, support your public lands agencies. They work for us. The concessionaires do not.

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