NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Free Market Environmentalism is Transforming Parks

August 7, 2015

The U.S. Army managed Yellowstone and other national parks until the National Park Service was established in 1916.  Despite the infusion of free market ideas to park management, the United States drew the line between the public and private interest back in the 1880s when Congress kept the Northern Pacific railroad from taking control of Yellowstone's most prized features. Inherently, our national park tradition provides a political barrier to sweeping corporate influence over our crown jewels.

A group of free market economists began examining alternative ideas for addressing public land management and other environmental issues 30 years ago. They studied the ways in which property rights and markets could improve the environment, but recognized many public lands were likely to remain in public ownership, partly because of their unique history.

Instead they provided a path to improve national park management by harnessing the forces of private enterprise within the public land system, using fees, incentives, and other market tools.

By retaining most of the fees they collected, parks become more self-sufficient, less reliant on Congress and politics, and more nimble to steward and care for park resources. Today, national parks keep at least 80 percent of the fees they collect, giving each park the incentive to develop a fee program that meets its needs.

National parks face an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, but Yellowstone has found a market approach to addressing some of its backlog by writing into its contracts with concessionaires to pay for capital maintenance. The park's superintendent has welcomed corporation donations and growth in the park's charitable foundation to offset cuts by Congress. He is also pushing for higher, more effective entrance fees. His renegotiated contract with the park's concessionaire aims to direct funds to capital investment, long underfunded by Congress.

Source: Rocky Barker, "How Free Market Environmentalism is Transforming Parks," Property and Environment Research Center, July 29, 2015.


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