The idea of franchising the national parks raises images of Mickey Mouse ears on top of Half-Dome at Yosemite, or the McDonald\’s \”golden arches\” as a scenic backdrop to the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. But that\’s not what Holly Fretwell has in mind in her essay, \”The NPS Franchise:
A Better Way to Protect Our Heritage,\” which appears in the George Wright Forum (2015, vol. 32, number 2, pp. 114-122). Instead, she is suggesting that a number of national parks might be better run as independent nongovernment conservation-minded operations with greater control over their own revenues and spending. In such an arrangement, the role of the National Park Service would be to evaluate the financial and environmental plans of possible franchisees, provide brand-name and a degree of logistical support, and then to make sure the franchisees announced plans were then followed up in the future.

To understand the impetus behind Fretwell\’s proposal, you need to first face the hard truth that the national parks have severe financial problems, which are manifesting themselves both in decaying infrastructure for human visitors and also in a diminished ability to protect the parks themselves (for example, sewer systems in parks affect both human visitors and environmental protection). Politicians are often happy to set aside more parkland, but spending the money to manage the land is a harder sell. If you accept as a basic constraint that federal spending on park maintenance isn\’t going to rise, or at least not rise sufficiently, then you are driven to consider other possibilities. Here\’s Fretwell on the current problems of the National Park Service (footnotes omitted):

As it enters its second century, NPS faces a host of challenges. In 2014, the budget of the National Park Service was $2.6 billion. The maintenance backlog is four times that, at $11.5 billion and growing. According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NCPA), about one-third of the shortfall is for “critical systems” that are essential for park function. Without upgrades, many park water and sewer systems are at risk. A water pipe failure in Grand Canyon National Park during the spring of 2014 cost $25,000 for a quick fix to keep water flowing, but is estimated to cost about $200 million to replace. Yellowstone also has antiquated water and wastewater facilities where past failures have caused environmental degradation. Sewer system upgrades in Yosemite and Grand Teton are necessary to prevent raw sewage from spilling into nearby rivers. Deteriorating electrical cables have caused failures in Gateway National Recreation Area and in Glacier’s historic hotels. Roads are crumbling in many parks. They are patched rather than restored for longevity. Only 10% of park roads are considered to be in better than “fair” condition. At least 28 bridges in the system are “structurally deficient,” and more than one-third of park trails are in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition.

Cultural heritage resources that the parks are set aside to protect are also at risk. Only 40% of park historic structures are considered to be in “good” or better condition and they need continual maintenance to remain that way. Exterior walls are weakening on historic structures such as Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial in Ohio, the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York, and the cellhouse in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California. Weather, unmonitored visitation, and leaky roofs are degrading cultural artifacts. Many of the artifacts and museum collections have never been catalogued. … 

Even though the NPS maintenance backlog is four times the annual discretionary budget, rather than focus funding on maintaining what NPS already has, the system continues to grow. … The continual expansion of park units and acreage without corresponding funding is what former NPS Director James Ridenour called “thinning the blood.” …  The national park system has grown from 25.7 million acres and about 200 units in 1960 to 84.5 million acres and 407 units in 2015. Seven new parks were added under the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act and nine parks were expanded. The growth came with no additional funding for operations or maintenance—more “thinning the blood.”

I\’ve had great family vacations in a number of national parks since I was a child. They were inexpensive to visit then, and they remain cheap. Indeed, there\’s sometimes an odd moment, when visiting a national park, when you realize that what you just spent at the gift shop, or for a family meal, considerably exceeds what you spent to enter the park. Fretwell writes:

Numerous parks have increased user and entrance fees for the 2015 summer season after
seeking public input and Washington approval. Even with the higher fees, a visit to destination parks like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone costs $30 for a seven-day vehicle permit, or just over $1 per person per day for a family of four. … The current low fees to enter units of the national park system typically make up a small portion of the total park visit expense. It has been estimated that the entry fee is less than 2% of park visit costs for visitors to Yellowstone and Yosemite. The bulk of the expenditures when visiting destination parks go to lodging, travel, and food. Higher fees have little effect on visitation to most parks. … Even modest fees (though sometimes large fee increases) could cover the operating costs of some destination parks. About $5 per person per day could cover operations in Grand Canyon National Park, as would just over $10 in Yellowstone.

An obvious question here is why the parks can\’t just raise fees on their own, but of course, that choice runs into political constraints as well. It is at least arguable that franchisees could spell out the facilities that need renovating and building, along with other services that could be offered, and then also be able to charge the fees that would cover the costs.

Fretwell recognizes that not all national parks will have enough visitors to work well with a franchise model (for example, some of the huge national parks in Alaska), and a need for direct government spending on such parks will remain. But it\’s worth remembering that national park visitors tend to have above-average income levels. A franchise proposal can be understood as a way of circumventing the political constraints that first prevent national parks from collecting money, and then don\’t allocate sufficient financial resources from other government revenues. A group of franchise proposals would also give national parks a way to move away from \”thinning the blood\”–that is, focusing heavily on how to persevere with tight and inflexible financial constraints–and instead offer an infusion of new ideas and how they might be financed.

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