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Could the Park Service Follow The Forest Service Down the Privatization Road?


    Back in April I posted a pretty lengthy piece on how financial troubles were forcing the U.S. Forest Service to sell some of its assets. It was kind of a way to make some bucks and rid the agency of aspects of its business that, quite frankly, cost money.
    At the time, I asked whether the National Park Service could soon be facing that same prospect.
    Well, I'm not going to tell you that that's exactly what is happened to the Park Service today. However, I am going to share another Forest Service story that should serve as a warning to national park advocates that the Bush administration doesn't think the federal government should be in the land-management business.

    This story ran earlier this month in the Gainesville Times in Florida. It relates how the Forest Service is turning over seven recreation areas in the Chattahoochee National Forest to a private concessionaire. One of the areas involved is a boat-launch facility, the others are campgrounds.
    In effect, the concessionaire will be responsible for maintaining the areas, collecting fees, even providing security. Sounds like a good deal for the Forest Service, right? Might even save the taxpayers some money. Heck, as a bonus, the concessionaire next year will be able to add some attractions designed to help it make a bigger profit.
    Now, the Forest Service line is that the concessionaire will be able to provide the same user services as the agency has been, but at a lesser cost. However, while the Forest Service says in one breath that the hours at some of these facilities could increase under the concessionaire's oversight, it quickly adds that user fees might increase, too.
    Keep in mind, too, that the Park Service already is starting down this road. As I've noted earlier, at Grand Teton National Park responsibility for some campgrounds already has been handed over to concessionaires, and the same is happening elsewhere in the park system as the Park Service struggles to make financial ends meet. 
    So let's see what we have here. Private management of publicly owned facilities that sounds good at the outset but which will result initially in higher fees to use those public facilities and which ultimately could spawn sale of those public facilities and lands to private owners. I mean really, if a private company is managing the concessions better, couldn't the government get a bigger bang for its buck by simply divesting itself of these costly holdings?
    Is that what we want for the public lands, the lands that reflect our heritage? Who profits under this scenario, the public, or the private concessionaire? And, just as importantly, who loses?
    Pay attention, folks. If the adminstration can financially bleed our public land agencies, which it seems to be doing with little outrage, those agencies will have no choice but to outsource their operations and, potentially, sell the very lands they're supposed to be managing.

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