California outsources state park management

Kai Ryssdal: There was news this week that California's gonna let private companies manage some of its state parks. Six of 'em, mostly in northern California. It's part of a last-ditch effort to stave off park closures while the state tries to bridge a canyon-sized budget gap.

But Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports running a state park ain't exactly easy money.

Sarah Gardner: Just to be clear, California’s not selling the parks to corporations. No Budweiser Beach, in other words. It’s outsourcing the day-to-day operations, says parks advocate Jerry Emory.

Jerry Emory: They’re not going to be putting up billboards or building hotels in state parks. They’re simply going to keep the parks open while trying to make a profit.

"Trying" may be the key word there. Phil McKnelly, a former parks chief in North Carolina, says corporations don’t realize running a state park is no picnic.

Phil McKnelly: Having to eradicate kudzu or other invasive species.

Kudzu eradication? Not exactly a money-maker. McKnelly says then you’ve got your sewer lines that break, vandalism, domestic disputes around the campfire, people who trip over a log and sue you. Oh, and pot grove patrol. Do companies really want this job?

McKnelly: I don’t think many folks have given those kinds of things consideration.

Actually, Steve Werner has. He’s VP at American Land and Leisure in Utah. His company already runs campgrounds in national forests. It’ll start managing three California parks August 1st. Werner says his company only bid on the ones with a healthy gate and ship-shape infrastructure. And as for those rowdy campers?

Steve Werner: Well hopefully residents in California are just as well-behaved as they are in the rest of the country and we won’t run into the need to bring in armed guards to keep an eye on things.

And if companies like Werner’s can’t make a profit off California’s public parks, they can always ask the state permission to raise fees.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.
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While traveling in California and visiting numerous State Parks there, my husband and I have noted that people park outside of the parks and walk in. They don't charge people to walk in. I guess only idiot tourists, like my husband and myself, think that people using a facility should pay for the privilege of using said facility. Obviously the people of California don't.

When did we die as citizens, and come back as "taxpayers"? Unlike business, life and public policy are not zero-sum games. We need to recognize that there is value added to our society at large, to and many individuals, in creating and sustaining a public good in a number of aspects of life. Appreciation of the world in which we live is important to leading life as a whole person. Parks, nature preserves and historical exhibits are just a few of the entities that allow appreciation. Even those who do not ever go to public parks have their lives improved by living in a society in which the others do get out to the parks. The notion that public utilities, i.e those that our society decided to provide for the citizenry during the past two centuries, must be run as profitable businesses is a distorted perception that has only arisen in the past 35 or so years During the same time period, the distribution of wealth has become increasingly inequitable. Is there a correlation? Think about it.

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