Is privatizing state parks a good idea? It’s apparently an attractive concept for some state legislators.
The House of Representatives in West Virginia just passed a bill that would allow widespread privatization of state parks in that state. Legislators see it as a way to get needed infrastructure and improvements added to state parks without the huge expense.
Privatization has been considered in West Virginia before. In 1994, the legislature was well on the way to approving privatization before a huge public outcry killed the move.
The proposed bill would allow private contracts of up to 50 years and provide for private funding for construction and new facilities like RV parks and equestrian centers. One concern for West Virginians is that the bill doesn’t restrict what private corporations can do. Some fear they’d add casinos, racetracks, amusement parks or fast-food outlets since nothing in the bill prevents such development.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t
Privatization of state parks can be a godsend for some locations. The State of Alabama closed Roland Cooper State Park in 2015 amid budget cuts. A concession company called Recreation Resource Management (RRM) won a contract from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to run the park on the agency’s behalf.
RRM was able to refurbish the 236-acre park at its own expense and reopen its campgrounds, cabins and bathrooms in 2016. The park now operates in the black and actually makes money for the state of Alabama.
Warren Meyer, who runs Recreation Resource Management, says it’s easy to find win-win situations for concessionaires and state parks.
“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 like the parks; we’re not trying to turn them into McDonald’s or used car lots.”
Many states contract with private companies for portions of state park operations, such as bathroom maintenance, souvenir sales or boat rentals. Some states allow contractors to take over completely, sometimes even selling public land to private companies.
That was the case in Oklahoma in 2008, when that state sold most of the popular Lake Texoma State Park to a developer who planned to construct a lakeside resort.
The state got $15 million and was out from under the park’s huge level of deferred maintenance. The developer, however, never came through with the resort, and the area lost a tourist attraction.
State parks are under pressure from the burgeoning number of new campers, and many states aren’t up to the task of operating the parks and making necessary improvements. Some experts claim the maintenance backlog alone could total at least $95 billion at a time when allocations for state parks are being cut.
Private companies are obviously interested in making a profit when they take over a state park, so it’s to be expected that rates for most services would increase as these companies invest in needed improvements.
Finding the balance in privatizing state parks
Privatizing state parks may be the only course in many states. Some states, like Michigan, play it both ways. That state has privatized some services such as food and boat rentals, but retained control of campgrounds and other essential services.
“We want to create a park atmosphere and not one of over-commercializing,” said Ron Olson, who is in charge of Michigan’s state parks. “In our systems, we have things that people enjoy that aren’t directly related to a revenue stream. … Our places that do very well, we could raise the fees and do market-based pricing, but it would price most of the public out of the market.”
It’s too early to tell how the latest privatization effort in West Virginia will turn out, but it’s worth watching as state officials across the U.S. try to find ways to keep state parks open without totally ceding a public asset to private corporations.