Yeah. In two days, we’ll have had a full year of this shit.
I don’t usually get political on this blog. This is actually one of the few places I come to escape politics. **Gives Facebook the hairy eyeball.**
But it appears Trump’s plans to ruin just about everything for the 99 percent extend to our public lands.
Now you may be like, Sar. We live in a rapidly failing democracy. Shouldn’t we be talking about more important things like healthcare and public education before parks?
Well, these issues are all connected.
The Trump administration has a basic MO: to privatize public services (veteran’s health care, public education) and turn our public resources (parts of National Monuments) over to private special interests.
And they want to do these things even if they drive up consumer costs and reduce access.
(Are we great yet?)
But that is bullshit, because our public lands belong to all of us. As the video at the top of this post captures perfectly.
So on this depressing anniversary, let’s flex our muscles and #resist.
In today’s post, we’ll look at the privatization of our U.S. National Parks, why it matters, and what you can do to fight it.
Post Images: Big Bend National Park, November 2016
Parks Under Pressure
When I think about the value of our national parks, I like to think of a hypothetical working single mom. Let’s call her Rose. She wants to expose her two preteens to nature, science, history, and culture. But she can’t afford to fly the family to Europe or Tokyo.
What she can afford is to pack her aging Honda Civic to the gills and drive the kids to a National Park. The whole family has learned about geology at Yellowstone, history at Gettysburg, and Native American culture at Mesa Verde.
To save money, they usually tent camp in the park. Sometimes the kids complain about the lack of cell service. But far from technological distractions, it’s easier to talk and have fun as a family.
Research suggests Rose is not alone.
In a nation that’s historically suspicious of government power, national parks are one of the few public institutions we universally agree are awesome.
In a 2016 study, 95 percent of respondents rated preservation of our national park system as “important.” And 81 percent said they would actually pay higher taxes to make it happen.
National parks are also a plus for our economy. National Park Service (NPS) data suggests that the parks generate almost $15 billion per year in consumer spending.
However, the funding of our parks doesn’t reflect their value.
Visits to national parks have increased by nearly 8 percent since 2015. But over the same period, federal funding has declined.
As a result, the NPS currently has a $12 billion dollar backlog of road and infrastructure repair projects awaiting funding.
While the majority of these projects involve proactive maintenance, about 10 percent ($1.3 billion) are considered essential to operations.
The biggest fiscal blow to date came last month.
On Oct. 26, Congress passed the 2018 federal budget. It slashed the NPS budget by 13 percent (to $2.55 billion) and staffing by 6 percent.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed offsetting budget cuts by raising peak season entrance fees at the 17 most popular parks to (beverage alert) a whopping $70. (What did I say earlier about access?)
Granted, national park entrance fees should be adjusted periodically to keep up with inflation. But that’s a hefty price to enjoy land that you, the citizen, own.
(By the way, public commentary on the rate hikes rule is open until Nov. 23. Click here to weigh in.)
Should We Privatize Our National Parks?
Instead of fighting for more money for our parks, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to bring in private corporations to pick up the bill.
To paraphrase him, “National parks should not be in the business of running campgrounds.”
(Was he speaking to a gathering of concerned citizens when he said so? Nope. It was the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. But more on that in a minute.)
Now to be fair, private concessionaires already run many lodging, food, and transportation services in our parks. And to some degree, it’s probably not a bad thing.
You could argue that limited privatization frees up time for rangers to educate and conserve instead of serving fries.
However, increased privatization is far more likely to benefit special interests than citizens.
National park concessionaires already gross over a $1 billion per year. Yet they pay only about 6 percent of these earnings to the federal government as franchising fees.
It’s an awesome deal for them. So hell yeah, they want more!
The National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA) is actively lobbying the feds for increased privatization. In fact, member corporations have given $500,000 in political donations since 2010.
They argue that privatization will lead to better campground facilities and nicer lodges. And they’re adamant that they can generate more money for the National Park Service.
Here are the reason I’m giving their claims a giant hairy eyeball.
1. Unlike the NPS, which has a public mission, private companies have no compelling reason to preserve access.
When private profits don’t meet expectations — or if the company just wants to make more money — concessionaires could raise prices to the point where middle-class Americans could not access the parks.
John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association points out that this isn’t the first time the NPS has considered expanding privatization. However, they abandoned earlier efforts (most recently in the 1990s) over concerns that privatization would increase the cost of visitation.
2. Amenities that make money for corporations don’t necessarily enhance the wilderness experience
One of NHPA’s selling points is that they will “improve” the visitor experience. How?
By bringing in new amenities like Wi-Fi and food trucks. I shit you not.
What’s next? Golf courses?
And no I’m not just saying that because golf is Trump’s idea of communing with nature.
Many state parks have incorporated privately managed golf courses to help ease budget crunches. Pennsylvania lawmakers also proposed bringing a water slide concession to the state’s parks in 2016.
While I’m a fan of water slides and taco trucks under most circumstances, I personally don’t miss them when I’m escaping into the wilderness.
3. Catering to special interests does not further the park’s mission.
Like I mentioned, Zinke’s speech about campgrounds was to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
And what a coincidence: Zinke just can’t wait for concessionaires to “modernize” national park campgrounds to allow for more RV use.
Now I’m not against RVs per se. But I don’t believe that making room for more of them is in the best interest of conservation.
Tent camping has a much smaller environmental footprint and is accessible to more Americans. So why not dedicate more resources to tent camping space and facilities?
Oh yeah. None of Trump’s cronies would make money off of that.
4. Contract disputes with concessionaires have led to costly lawsuits against the NPS.
To raise funds, Yosemite National Park sold certain trademark rights — including uses of the park’s name — to its concessionaire, Delaware North.
Everything was great until Delaware North lost its contract and sued the NPS to enforce its trademarks.
So the park had to waste a lot of time and money changing signage and complying with the trademark rules. And the new concessionaire can’t sell certain Yosemite National Park merchandise in the gift store.
Xanterra Parks and Resorts sued the NPS in 2014 after its concessions contract at Grand Canyon National Park was put up for bidding. It sought to recoup $100 million in infrastructure investments from any subsequent vendor. (Xanterra withdrew the suit after reaching a new concessions agreement with Grand Canyon NP.)
TL;DR: it’s easy to get national park concessionaires, but hard to hold them accountable when they suck.
5. Some concessionaires may be using our tax dollars to pad their profits.
By contract, concessionaires are usually responsible for maintaining the facilities they operate. However, neither Congress nor regulators has pushed private companies to meet these obligations.
As a result, the NPS maintenance backlog appears to include about $400 million worth of repairs to concession-run facilities.
Unless the government takes action, these will presumably be borne by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the corporations will increase their profit margins.
6. Interaction with private concessionaires (rather than rangers) undercuts the idea that the parks are national treasures that belong to all Americans.
Hey, I’ll take fries from anyone. But I strongly believe that the people enforcing the laws, collecting the fees, and educating visitors should be public servants.
How to #Resist
Special interest groups and the Trump administration want you to believe that our parks are such a mess financially that privatization is the only answer.
Here are some things that could happen instead:
- Zinke could make protecting our public lands for future generations an actual priority. He could actually try to fight for bigger budgets for our land management agencies.
- Congress could allocate more money to our parks. At the very least, they could appropriate money for the most critical repairs in the backlog.
- Both Zinke and Congress could pressure private corporations into making their fair share of facilities repairs.
- The Department of the Interior actually has its own inspector general who could audit the maintenance backlog. This would clarify which projects are critical and which should rightly be taken on by concessionaires.
- Congress could create a nonprofit endowment fund to allow concerned citizens to donate directly toward the management of our public lands.
So how do we make that happen? Well, considering our Congress has complete abdicated any semblance of balls or moral leadership, it might be a long road. But it’s one we have to keep walking, for the sake of this issue and many others.
Join and be active in advocacy groups.
Today’s banner on the Sierra Club website says it all.
But in all seriousness, there’s strength in numbers.
Organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association lobby Congress on key conservation issues. As a member, you’ll receive advocacy alerts letting you know how you can take action. And through your organization, you can help to shape policy at the state and national levels.
Write to your representatives.
Most experts agree. The best way to get through to your representatives is good old-fashioned letter writing. Here’s a useful primer on this lost art from the Trust for Public Land.
Realize that federal public lands belong to every American.
Our property should benefit the people, not private companies and special interest groups. Period. End of story. Forever and EVAH.
So that’s my rant for the day. There’s way more going on with our public lands than I could possibly cover on the blog. So for updates, please follow Miss Adventure Pants on Facebook. And if you’d like to suggest a story or update, contact me here.
- Interior Secretary Zinke: NPS Staff Can Clean Restrooms, but not Manage Campgrounds (National Parks Traveler)
- Opinion: How Trump Could Privatize National Parks (Adventure Journal)
- Don’t Privatize National Parks (New Republic)
- Americans Think National Parks Are Worth $92 Billion, but We Don’t Fund Them Accordingly (The Conversation)
- Eighty-Eight Units Of National Park System Tapped For $49.6 Million To Help Grand Canyon National Park (National Parks Traveler)
Originally published Nov. 6, 2017.