How Much Should the Great Outdoors Be Privatized?

Private vendors that operate in the national parks, and the associations that represent them, are pushing for a greater role in managing campsites—an idea that the current interior secretary seems to support. But conservation groups have big concerns.

Is the future of the national parks going to look more like a public-private partnership?

Based on recent comments by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, that option is on the table. Speaking to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) at an event last month, Zinke implied that he was considering giving private organizations more control of services offered in the parks.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke said, according to E&E News [subscription]. “My folks will never be as good as you are.”

His comments suggest an opportunity for some groups—like RVIA and the National Park Hospitality Association—to expand their members’ role in national parks, according to The Hill. Currently, private vendors offer services such as concessions in the parks, but federal employees handle the vast majority of visitor services.

In comments to the Flathead Beacon, American Recreation Coalition President Derrick Crandall suggested that privatization could improve the quality of campsites.

“Just as we want world-class lodges, we want world-class campgrounds,” Crandall said. “In reality what we have is some of the world’s best campsites in terms of where they are geographically and some of the world’s worst campsites in terms of how they are operated. This could be such an opportunity.”

Privatization Concerns

But conservation groups worry about a slippery slope. “The reality is private companies need to make a profit,” National Parks Conservation Association Budget Director John Garder  told the Community Newspaper Holdings wire service. “If they’re going to increase the amenities at a campsite, that’s going to cost them money. They’re going to charge more to customers. That’s how it works.”

The Western Values Project, an advocacy group that supports the conservation of public lands, has its own concerns about the plan that go beyond higher prices for park visitors.

“Secretary Zinke is throwing hardworking park rangers under the bus while advocating for a budget that cuts essential funding and allows special interests to drill and mine public lands with virtually no accountability,” the group’s executive director, Chris Saeger, told the Flathead Beacon last month.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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