It seems that the people’s enjoyment of our national parks and historic places has been the biggest – or at least the most visible – casualty of this shutdown debacle. With nearly 80% of the federal government system deemed “essential,” and untouched, the arrangement leaves the President with few good options with which to demonstrate to the general voting public the extent to which they really do need the Federal Government in their everyday lives. People plan visits to national parks years in advance. A trip to Yosemite, Yellowstone, or even Washington DC can be the trip of a lifetime for many families. Sites like Mount Rushmore and the Vietnam Memorial Wall have become iconic symbols of America. What better way, then, to exercise executive branch power during a policy protest than to close down these very locations. Instant TV drama can be created by putting the disappointment of thousands of visitors on very public display.
We are all learning a number of valuable lessons from the current government stalemate. To those that pay attention, the policy positions of various political leaders – and their willingness to defend those positions – have come to light. The issues at the core of the debate are ultimately what are most important in the end – and the brinksmanship of such a standoff is a good tactic to spur the debate. But, the ancillary revelations that come to us during the process are important to notice as well. Two such truths that have become self-evident is the risk in the current method of funding and operation of our national park system and the unacceptability of their shutdown over political and budgetary disputes.
My proposal would be to privatize the operations of our national parks to a number of private sector entities. No – I’m not talking about turning Yellowstone in to a Disney-World like for-profit commercial tourist trap. The idea is to simply hire private sector employees and managers to provide the visitor services, law enforcement, general maintenance, and administration that is currently being provided by federal employees. The jobs would likely continue to be held by the same individuals, just with private oversight, rather than government. Contracts would be awarded for multi-year periods. The contract holder would be required to operate the national site in accordance with the current mission statement and charge of the National Park Service. Nothing changes except the ability of the executive branch to close the park at the whims of Washington.
In actually, the parks could almost be self-sustaining. Annually, almost 400 million people visit the 400 or so national park sites. The annual operating budget for the NPS is $3 Billion, which no doubt includes a bit of government waste. The overall budget is a little over $4 Billion, annually. But, a $10 per head fee covers the entire operational budget. Agreeably, while $10 isn’t a bad price for “admission” to a major National Park, it probably isn’t justified at a minor site like the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot. But, opening up the conservation of national sites to charitable giving and institutional foundation fundraising could easily make up the difference. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, The National Audubon Society and others, show that conservation and preservation are important to Americans and it shows in their charitable giving habits. These private entities could become key in supporting our national treasures with private sector funding.
It’s time to address the American public’s addiction to the government. It is too easy now for government to demagogue an issue, withhold or manipulate funding, or change policy and procedures and create enough pain to keep them in power. The National Parks and historic places don’t BELONG to the federal government. They belong to US , and we simply HIRE the federal government to run them for us. If superintendent of an office building that I owned locked the doors and refused to let me in to my own building over a budget dispute, I’d fire that superintendent before he finished his explanation of his actions. It’s time to take back our National Parks. It’s time to hire new administrators that can run them the way we expect them to be run.