Market Solutions for National Parks
October 26, 2010
A recent Los Angeles Times piece highlighted the record attendance at National Parks "in the midst of an economic downturn," similar to park attendance going up during the Great Depression. But relying on recessions and depressions to boost park attendance is a bad business model. In other words, national parks can't compete against other venues in good times; they can only compete when Americans don't have jobs or money. Moving parks closer to self-sufficiency would ensure their viability in the good and the bad times, says Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
So what does park visitation look like when the economy is thriving? Not great.
- Park visitation peaked in 1987.
- In 2008, fewer people visited the national parks than they did 20 years ago.
Regarding infrastructure, the National Parks Conservation Association notes that despite millions in stimulus money, chronic underfunding has left a backlog of about $8 billion in maintenance and preservation. The result: leaky sewer systems, crumbling roads and dilapidated buildings.
Perhaps it's time to revisit the original vision of the national parks system, says Huggins.
- The park service's first director, Stephen Mather, believed that the ability to set appropriate fees and retain park receipts was important for responsible management, as doing so created a direct tie to those visiting and managing the resource.
- Under Mather's leadership, five parks became operationally self-sufficient, including Yosemite.
Looking back to the parks' origins and adopting more market mechanisms may be the solution to enhancing the visitor experience and boosting financial support. A few ideas include expanding the Fee Demonstration Program, which ensures that revenue generated by fees at certain parks be kept in those parks rather than sent back to the federal Treasury; contracting out more concession services (which has a proven track record in some of California's state parks); and engaging in benefits-sharing agreements, in which national parks reap some of the profits from businesses that do research in the parks with an eye on commercial opportunities.
Source: Laura E. Huggins, "Market Solutions for National Parks," Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2010.
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