In quest for cuts, National Park Service eyes private sector takeovers

Phil Francis was superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway when he considered outsourcing operations of some of the eight campgrounds along the scenic Appalachian drive. The budget was tight, and he wondered if he could save some money, so he looked next door to a U.S. Forest Service campground along the Davidson River. The Forest Service had tapped a nonprofit to run the campground, Francis said, and the idea appealed to him. If the group wasn’t focused on financial gain, he figured, parkway patrons wouldn’t have to endure fee hikes.

What he soon realized, though, was the nonprofit still needed to break even, and in this case, that meant the forest service shouldered the cost of capital projects, like replacing the roofs of restrooms.

“I just couldn’t see any benefit,” said Francis, who has since retired. “I didn’t see where we were going to save any money at all.”

Now vice chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group of current and former park service employees, Francis is wary of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent suggestion that the National Park Service could reduce its $11 billion backlog of maintenance projects by letting private companies manage campgrounds and take care of other services inside parks.

Public-private lands under Trump

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke told members of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, according to “My folks will never be as good as you are.” He promised more “public-private partnerships soon.”

Secretary Zinke is talking about taking action so we don’t see continued deterioration.

The National Park Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association did not respond to interview requests, but a park spokesman said the service has not been directed to pursue more contracts with private companies.

Still, Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, thinks the country will boast more sustainable and better operated parks by the end of President Donald Trump’s first term.

“The park service has invested very little money in the campgrounds,” Crandall said. “We have a declining utilization and we have significant deferred maintenance backlog in campgrounds. Secretary Zinke is talking about taking action so we don’t see continued deterioration.”

The future of glamping on public lands

Some campgrounds in national parks lack amenities that visitors now expect, such as hot showers, Crandall said. And unlike Francis, he thinks the federal government could chip at that backlog through contracts with private companies that would invest in those kinds of improvements. How fees are collected could change, he said, with parks perhaps charging more to camp on a holiday weekend like the Fourth of July, but Crandall doesn’t expect widespread increases.

Grand Canyon National Park Mather Campground.NPS

Grand Canyon National Park Mather Campground.

Two-thirds of all Forest Service campgrounds are already operated by private companies, according to Crandall, compared to about a tenth of National Park campgrounds. In the future, he envisions more choice—the option to bring a tent or rent one, for example. Plus, wifi and maybe food trucks. Increasingly, he said, campers are driving 60 miles from their sites to eat at a restaurant in a community near the park’s entrance. Americans aren’t interested in making three meals while they’re on vacation, he added, even if it’s over a campfire.

“The Park Service has simply ignored camper needs for several decades,” he said.

The budget problem

But if the Trump Administration wants to shore up struggling park operations, officials need to funnel more money to the service, not less, said John Garder, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association. Zinke has defended $400 million in funding cuts that Trump has proposed for the park system. Democrats on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources have said losing that much money would trigger staff reductions at 90% of the national parks. Maria Cantwell, a senator from Washington and the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Trump’s proposed budget would “devastate our national parks.”

Trump got a lot of blowback for donating his first quarter salary of nearly $80,000 to the National Park Service earlier this year while proposing much larger cuts to in his budget at the same time. While a misleading gesture, it was clearly a publicity stunt that most Americans would support without the corresponding budget cuts: A report from Harvard’s Kennedy School last year found that 80% of Americans would agree to pay higher taxes to keep the National Parks.

Debt is a major problem for the National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year facing a multibillion dollar maintenance backlog, much of which is for roadwork, but also buildings, campgrounds, trails, and other facilities. Under Trump, recent incremental increases to the NPS budget look to be turned back in the opposite direction.

“They are not getting what they need to adequately meet their mission to serve visitors and protect park resources,” Garder said. And while he said there may be opportunities for parks to partner with private companies, he doesn’t think it’s a realistic way to address funding woes. He’s further skeptical that bidding out campground operations won’t result in additional fees for visitors. There could also be a cultural cost, Garder added—fewer park rangers roaming around.

“They are an important part of the park experience,” he said.

It could be a good idea

Jan Lemons, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, started working in concessions at Rocky Mountain National Park before becoming a protection ranger for the service. The three summers she spent at the Trail Ridge Store in the 1990s, then operated by Rocky Mountain Park Company, led to a decades-long career “living and working in the most beautiful places in the country,” she said.

“In the last place I worked,” she said, “we had a very small concession run campground. The owner was great to work with and we worked very closely to ensure visitors had a good experience and their expectations were met at a fair, competitive price.”

Like everywhere, she said, some companies are great to work with and, she added diplomatically, others “could use improvement.”

For now, Phil Francis is merely concerned by Zinke’s comments—and withholding judgment until he knows more about the secretary’s plans. It could be a good idea, he said—“but my experience has been there’s more to it than first meets the eye.”