Franchising Parks

Governments do well at some things, poorly at others, and managing parks seems to be a task done rather poorly, so this article from National Parks Traveler is worth a read.

An excerpt.

With a park system that is being strangled by its maintenance backlog and operating costs, would the National Park Service, and the system, be better off if the agency outsourced entire parks?

That isn’t necessarily a ridiculous idea on its face. Already the Park Service contracts with others to manage its lodgings, restaurants, and many campgrounds, and it relies heavily on volunteers to cope with visitors. So why not go all in? Would it make a stronger, more efficient, and better managed park system if individual units were treated, say, as franchises that were independently managed?

The idea was raised last month in Bozeman, Montana, during a three-day workshop the Property and Environment Research Center held on the next century of the National Park Service. The topic certainly is timely, as the Park Service’s centennial arrives on August 25, 2016, and, at least outwardly, more emphasis so far has been placed on how to celebrate the agency rather than what can make the agency better going forward.

Understandably, with a maintenance backlog estimated at more than $11.5 billion, congressional appropriations relatively flat, and unwieldy concession operations, fiscal fitness should be a key aspect of any long-range planning by the agency.

From the perspective of one of the workshop’s presenters, Holly Fretwell, the Park Service appears to be an inefficient agency that likely could benefit by placing the day-to-day operation of some, if not many, of its units into the hands of the business community.

“To me, if we thought about this from some sort of economic perspective, the point of the National Park Service, the reason that you would want sort of that umbrella entity, is to lower the transaction cost of having these parks function,” Ms. Fretwell, a research fellow at PERC and an adjunct economics instructor at Montana State University, said in a follow-up interview. “If it’s not doing that, if it’s actually increasing the transaction costs, then it’s not serving its purpose. And I think at this point it might be increasing those transaction costs.”

Whether the Park Service’s staggering fiscal morass is due to managerial pitfalls or congressional underfunding has been, and will continue to be, debated. By placing some units under outside managers — franchisees could be one descriptor — not only could lead the units to become economically viable, but also help control Congress’s appetite for creating park system units that might not quite fit the mold.

Would a First State National Monument be any less if a non-profit organization ran it, much like the Mount Vernon Ladies Association runs George Washington’s home? Should $8 million-$26 million in tax dollars be spent in the coming years to fund the proposed Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, or should an outside group step forward with a plan to raise those funds on its own and operate such a park under the NPS umbrella?

Retrieved October 17, 2014 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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