As the state has faced mountains of red ink over the last few years, one of the budget casualties has been the State Parks department. Some parks have been temporarily closed to save money and permanently closing others has been debated. As the economy begins to recover, all parks that were temporarily closed have reopened, but that doesn’t mean the department is out of the woods. The real obstacle to keeping our state parks open isn’t money. It’s bureaucracy.
Last December, the Arizona State Parks Foundation published a “privatization and efficiency plan.” Prepared by PROS Consulting, the proposal appears to have been written by former government parks administrators—not exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking needed during times of budget crises. It recommends most state parks be managed by a quasi-government entity, sort of like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally created banks that helped create the real estate bubble. The report is clearly influenced by the department’s objection to allowing private companies to manage Arizona’s parks.
Some hear “private companies” and think our parks would be sold off. But the Parks Foundation is ignoring what really has been suggested: a public-private partnership that allows private companies to manage publicly owned resources under strict performance contracts. One Arizona-based company, Recreation Resource Management, runs complete parks for the U.S. Forest Service right here in Arizona. This fact alone should be enough to dispel concerns raised in the report that many state parks are on land leased from the federal government and therefore can’t be run by anyone but the state.
A quasi-government entity could keep the current state park organization largely intact, missing the opportunity to gain the efficiencies and improvements in quality that could come from allowing private companies to help. A private company, required under contract to maintain a park’s character, would be committed to running a park well to attract more people to enjoy its natural or cultural treasures. In the end, isn’t that what we want in a parks system?
Dr. Byron Schlomach is the director of the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Economic Prosperity.
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