Ken Burns makes amazing documentaries, but even more amazing is that the Oct. 15 fluff piece on national parks by Burns and Dayton Duncan, “Preserving national treasures,” made it to print in The Times.
The article can be summed up as such: National parks are wonderful, and thank you President Obama for saying that. Unfortunately, there’s no meat, no proposals, just nostalgia. But “where’s the beef” when our antiquated parks could use a real makeover?
Burns and Duncan rightly pay homage to Yosemite, “the home of spectacular waterfalls, silent groves of ancient trees and an unequaled alpine wilderness.” They go on to highlight record attendance “in the midst of an economic downturn,” similar to park attendance going up during the 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.
So what does park visitation look like when the economy is thriving? Not great. Park visitation peaked in 1987. And in 2008, fewer people visited the national parks than they did 20 years ago. As the Economist cautioned in July 2008, when Americans lose their interest in the national parks again, “they will become less willing to pay for them through taxes.”
Regarding infrastructure, the National Parks Conservation Assn. 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. As noted by Holly Fretwell, the author of “Who is Minding the Federal Estate?,” 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.
As for benefits sharing, the National Park Service has granted thousands of research permits. In Yellowstone alone, there are about 40 research studies being conducted at any given time. Commercial firms studying microbes that flourish in Yellowstone’s geysers stand to earn billions, and Yellowstone should get a piece of that. Yet opponents challenge such agreements as a commercial use of park resources, even though the microbes collected in the parks remain in federal ownership.
Many Americans find themselves uncomfortable with such economic concepts. But as my colleague, Brian Yablonksi, wrote in the winter 2009 edition of PERC Reports, “The sentiment comes with a tinge of irony. Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainer and Crater Lake National Parks all owe their existence, in part, to private economic interests” — that is, railroads.
I have climbed the walls of Half Dome and agree with Burns, Duncan and John Muir that Yosemite is “nature’s temple” and should be preserved. I have also sat through one of Obama’s listening sessions for his administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which Burns and Duncan support as a new conservation plan for the 21st century. Unfortunately, this is just another expensive and expansive government program being spun out of the White House that will produce a big nothing burger in terms of promoting the long-term health of our national parks. Market solutions work and can be implemented almost immediately — and without an expensive White House initiative.
Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and director of outreach at the Property and Environment Research Center.