Friday, October 22, 2010

Privatizing the National Parks

Laura Huggins of the Hoover Institution proposes that more privatization will help the national parks. She's not proposing full-up privatization, just a few market-based ideas:
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.
Her presentation seems almost diffident; perhaps she is aware of a larger initiative to privatize a national park that is failing.

When the Baca Ranch, which comprised a great deal of the Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, came up for sale in 2000, the US government bought it, but declined to place it in the National Park system. Rather, a special trust was formed to manage the property, to become profitable in 2015, as a good capitalist privatized government investment should.

It's becoming clear that that isn't going to happen, and the management of the property has been contentious from the start. Access to the public has been extremely limited, and none of the accouterments that the public has become accustomed to in national parks are present, like a Visitors Center.

So this year, both of New Mexico's senators introduced legislation to transfer the Valles Caldera Preserve to the National Park Service. The legislation seems to have joined so much other legislation in the Senatorial limbo, probably because both New Mexico senators are Democrats, so there must be something Fascist-Socialist about this plot.

Perhaps Huggins's more modest suggestions would have some effect. The privately-operated Valles Grande website is much more informative about the area than the website of the (sort of) privately-run trust. Although I doubt that either comes up to the gold standard of making money. So this part of my evidence is not definitive.

Or perhaps we could see the national parks as a good for the nation: the protection of a part of the continent as it once was, the maintenance of ecosystems, the availability of outdoor recreation for those who use it and those who may use it in the future. Sounds like one of those collective goods that taxes support.

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