Interior secretary seeks P3s to assist the Park Service

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has stated that he plans to alleviate the impact of potentially large National Park Service budget cuts by allocating more resources to the “front line” and away from middle management. Zinke, whose department oversees the Park Service, has said the government can’t come up with funds to eliminate the entire backlog much less offer new amenities and so he has proposed outsourcing the management of the campgrounds to private companies, reducing labor and maintenance costs in the process. The National Park Service reports it has $11.3 billion in improvement projects backlogged at the time President Donald Trump proposes cutting $322 million from the agency’s annual $3 billion budget.

The Park Service now contracts with private companies to provide services to some of its campgrounds but the vast majority are managed by the agency’s employees, including park rangers for security and assistance. Zinke has in mind expanding so-called public-private partnerships (P3), where the Park Service would still own the land and set the rules but private companies would operate, manage and make improvements to the campgrounds. The companies would recover some of their costs with user fees, which are now charged at some, but not all, federal campgrounds. The Park Service estimated Trump’s budget cut would eliminate 6.4 percent, or 1,242 of its work force, when visitors to national parks and campgrounds are soaring, reaching a record high of 324 million last year. The National Parks Conservation Association said it supports legislation in Congress to allocate royalties from oil and gas drilling on federal park land to a fund dedicated to the Park Service’s improvement projects backlog. A bipartisan bill to do that has been introduced in the House.

A General Accounting Office report in February indicated P3s can be profitable for the government. The report included the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park in Montana as an example. The hotel opened in 1915, five years after the park’s creation. In recent years, it has negotiated 488 contracts with private companies to provide a range of management and vendor services, generating about $104 million per year in revenue for the Park Service. The U.S. Forest Service, which separately controls 3,005 campgrounds around the country, has turned over the majority of their operation and management to private entities. Nearly all of them charge user fees.