When the state of Alabama shuttered Roland Cooper State Park due to budget concerns in 2015, entrepreneur Warren Meyer spotted an opportunity. Meyer runs Recreation Resource Management, a concession company that maintains campgrounds, builds cabins and provides amenities at state parks and U.S. Forest Service sites around the country.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources gave RRM a contract to manage the park on its behalf. The campgrounds, cabins and bathrooms reopened in 2016 for the anglers, campers and birders who visit the 236-acre park along the Alabama River.
“We were able to reopen the park within a year after it closed, and RRM has been running it ever since and doing a fantastic job,” said Rob Grant, assistant director of Alabama’s State Parks Division. “It’s a net profit for us, and before that we were losing money there.”
Meyer is an outspoken supporter of further privatization of state and federal lands. He said Roland Cooper shows how concessionaires are bolstering governments’ efforts to keep public lands thriving.
“We’re being asked to come in and provide the capital to refurbish the campgrounds or provide amenities that governments can’t really appropriate,” he said. “We enjoy the parks; we’re not trying to transform them into McDonald’s or used car yards. It’s simple to find these win-win situations.”
But the role of private companies on public lands has come under increased scrutiny after a panel appointed by the Trump administration recommended last month privatizing national park campgrounds and opening them to WiFi, food trucks and Amazon deliveries. Several of the panelists chosen by the White House were executives from concession firms, according to critics.
While the national plan is hotly debated, state park systems across the country already vary widely when it comes to privatization. Private enterprises are used by several states to clean restrooms, sell souvenirs, and hire kayaks. Others permit contractors to operate campsites or parks. And a few states have solicited large developments in their parks or sold public land to private companies.
Sometimes, that hasn’t worked out so well.
In 2008, Oklahoma sold a large portion of the popular Lake Texoma State Park to a developer who was constructing a lakefront resort. The state earned $15 million while abdicating responsibility for the park’s costly repair backlog. The park’s cottages and hotel were demolished to make space for the new construction.
Four years after the sale, in 2012, a news report from NPR’s StateImpact Oklahoma partnership called the site a “ghost town.” Now, not much has changed, according to Merle Steele, president of the Friends of Lake Texoma Organization, an activist group that opposed the sale.
“They persuaded the people that they were going to achieve fantastic things,” Steele remarked. “As soon as the paperwork was done, everything was shut down, the hotel was torn down and that was it. Marshall County’s final tourism attraction was lost to the community. They kept promising and promising until they got what they wanted. They then returned it to the bush.”
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all model. Some states have extensive wilderness parks, but others have more urban and historical monuments. Many rely solely on user fees, while others rely on funds allocated by state governments.
Each state has varied finances, duties, and park kinds — as well as various roles for privatization.
State parks face a challenging challenge. Last year, they saw more than 800 million visitors, according to the National Association of State Park Directors — far more than the over 300 million who ventured to national parks.
And while much has been made of the $12 billion maintenance backlog facing the National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the figure at more than $95 billion for state parks. Moreover, states are reducing their funding for state parks.
Although governments are stretched tight, many supporters for public lands believe states should be cautious when cooperating with for-profit enterprises.
“There’s something unsettling about depending on profit-driven corporations to provide public services,” said Steven Kirschner, who has written about concessionaires maintaining Forest Service campsites.
Kirschner, an enforcement officer with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, discovered that concessionaires handled more than half of the national forest camping areas.
Some of them collected fees that the Forest Service could not; others refused to acknowledge agency passes.
“We don’t have legislatures willing to commit the resources necessary to maintain a robust public lands system, so we are necessarily turning to private enterprise,” Kirschner said. “Yet, evaluating public goods via a profit-and-loss prism is inherently erroneous. They were never intended to create income.”
Officials for Aramark and Delaware North, two significant concession firms that operate in national and state parks and were on the panel convened by the Trump administration, did not reply to requests for comment.
Concessionaires and some park authorities say that firms may give additional facilities in addition to running areas that park administrations cannot pay to maintain.
In 2012, California leased four state parks to concessionaires, which state officials say saved the parks from the budget chopping block. According to Jared Zucker, concessions program manager for California State Parks, the relationship has been a success, and the state maintains strict monitoring.
“We viewed it as a way to keep such parks open,” he said. “It’s not like we simply give them the keys and turn a blind eye to their activities. The activities have generally proceeded as they would have under [agency] control under the concessionaire.”
California, he claims, has the country’s biggest concessions program outside of the National Park Service, with more than 200 contracts in its 280 parks, the majority of which are for services outside than basic operations like as shopping and rentals.
Around $20 million of the $120 million to $140 million in money generated by concessionaires each year is returned to California.
The leases were not met with much vocal opposition, perhaps because they were reached at a time when the agency was proposing to close 70 state parks amid budget concerns. The parks remained open owing to donations and an audit that discovered unaccounted for funds.
Yet, at least one former employee has said that a concessionaire’s recycling program at Limekiln State Park just threw everything in the garbage.
Tennessee had a different response. When then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, proposed in 2015 to outsource hospitality services at Fall Creek Falls State Park, he was met with fierce local opposition.
“We’re stewards of the real assets of the people of Tennessee,” said Republican state Sen. Janice Bowling, who fought the efforts to privatize the park in her district. “Those are not our houses for sale…” If we sell our genuine assets to save money, we would have completely lost the purpose of who we are.”
Bowling was also concerned that a private corporation would transform the park into an affluent getaway.
“The state park should not have that impression of impersonal profiteering,” she remarked. “If we make it overly expensive for the working families to enjoy it, we’re neglecting one of the primary purposes of state parks.”
After great protest from Bowling and others, the state eventually got no bids from the private sector.
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The Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter director, Jeff Tittel, said his organization had opposed “proposal after proposal” to develop areas of Liberty State Park, a waterfront park in New York Harbor that provides access to Ellis Island.
“Everything from a waterpark to a luxury golf course to a millionaire marina to a giant cricket stadium to a hotel to shopping,” he said. “It’s been a never-ending fight.”
Most of the initiatives have been halted due to public outrage, he claims. He blamed the state for failing to adequately support its parks, then claiming it needs developer money just to pay for overdue maintenance. The Division of Parks and Forests in New Jersey did not reply to a request for comment.
“We’re not against proper and acceptable concessions in parks,” he added, “as long as they’re not exorbitant and there’s public access.”
Several of the Liberty State Park ideas were made under Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, which focused on privatization numerous government functions.
A New Jersey Senate committee overwhelmingly approved the Liberty State Park Preservation Act last month, which would restrict the park to “small-scale commercial activity” and prohibit any construction on a natural area inside the park.
Finding a Balance
Cities and counties have taken control in certain circumstances, while charities have led the way in others. When Alaska was on the verge of closing three state parks near the Valdez Bay in 2015, supporters formed a nonprofit, the Valdez Adventure Alliance, which took over operation of the park from the state.
Lanette Oliver, the group’s executive director, said the arrangement works for the state because the alliance was willing to take over unprofitable sites in a package with money-makers, something commercial enterprises might have refused to do. The organization has maintained rates similar with the agency’s other parks and is on its way to breaking even, barring certain funding.
“The bottom line is the money for most for-profits,” Oliver said. “For a nonprofit, we have to figure in our mission.”
When it comes to forming private corporations, other states adopt a more middle-of-the-road approach. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources partners with concessionaires to sell food and souvenirs at state parks, as well as to run programs such as canoe rentals. Michigan, on the other hand, has retained control of its campsites and other amenities and has not had to shut any of its state parks.
“We want to establish a park ambiance that isn’t too commercialized,” said Ron Olson, the superintendent of Michigan’s state parks. “We have features that people appreciate in our systems that aren’t immediately tied to a revenue stream. … We could increase the fees and implement market-based pricing in our successful locations, but this would price the majority of the public out of the market.”
Olson said the state has learned from previous missteps, such as turning over a downhill ski area to a contractor, which was “not a very good operation.” The state is now collaborating with a local community college that offers a ski management degree, which Olson says has benefited both the agency and the school.
Don Philpott, executive director of the nonprofit Florida State Parks Foundation, saw a rise in the quantity of acreage and visits to state parks over the last 20 years, but the number of Florida Park Service employees has decreased. The agency, he added, has “massive controls” in place to ensure that concessionaires fit the mission of the parks.
“If we can get those concessionaires to come in and do the menial tasks, that’s to be applauded, because a ranger doesn’t want to spend his time cleaning a bathroom,” he said. “They have abilities that might be put to greater use elsewhere.”
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Even many staunch anti-privatization advocates admit that some services — like cleaning bathrooms or running lodges, restaurants and gift shops — might be a good fit for private sector partners if it saves state agencies money. They do, however, warn of a cliff.
“When a company comes and says, ‘I can just take it over for you and take this off your budget item list,’ it sounds appealing,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director at Western Values Project, a public lands organization based in Montana. “What does it signify in the long run? Will we impose restrictions on access? Will we use demand-based pricing? Does it imply that we have effectively ceded this public asset?”
Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based advocacy organization for free access to public lands, believes that certain parks should be free of camp shops and Internet.
She also said that concessionaires often exploit infrastructure created and maintained by parks organizations, such as hotels, gift stores, and marinas.
“Mom and dad are going to give me a stand and a pitcher and some lemonade, ice, and cups, and I’m going to keep all the money,” she said.
But, Meyer, the concessionaire, pointed out that the infrastructure debate is bifurcated. In some cases, states have required companies that want to set up shop in a park to build or restore cabins and visitor centers or install new electric and sewer infrastructure — all still public.
He believes that private enterprises may engage in a good collaboration with governments provided authorities maintain strong control over what occurs in their parks.
“Nearly every failure of public-private partnerships has occurred when the government, through favoritism or ineptitude, delegated that top role and allowed private enterprise to dictate the nature and usage of the property,” he said.