Companies that operate visitor services in national parks are pushing the Trump administration to outsource more work to the private sector.
The hospitality industry is betting that President Trump’s desire to cut the National Park Service’s (NPS) budget, combined with the GOP’s long-standing goal of moving federal functions to the private sector, presents an opportunity to make inroads in campgrounds, fee collection and other services at parks.
The administration appears receptive. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke brought up campgrounds at a recent event, saying he doesn’t think the NPS should be in the business of running them.
“As the secretary, I don't want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke told members of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association at a recent event, according to E&E News. “My folks will never be as good as you are.”
Conservationists fear that increasing the role of concessioners is a slippery slope toward privatizing national parks. In addition, reducing federal staffing levels, or even reassigning a significant number of workers, is likely to face stiff pushback.
But the companies feel their arguments should resonate at a time of tightening federal dollars. Trump wants to cut roughly $375 million of the NPS’s $3 billion budget, and the agency is already facing a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion.
“In times of budget challenges, looking at where an agency can do fewer things better and outsource to entities that are already in this space, it does make sense to already have this discussion,” a lobbyist for a company that already operates as a concessioner in many parks told The Hill.
“It’s sort of a win-win,” the lobbyist said. “Some of these dialogues haven’t been had in quite some time, and it’s ripe to have these conversations.”
The campaign is being led in part by the National Park Hospitality Association, whose members include big companies like Aramark Corp. and Delaware North Co., as well as smaller businesses that might operate a small handful of services.
The companies work as concessioners, operating businesses at NPS sites like restaurants and lodges and giving a portion of their earnings to the federal government, instead of carrying out responsibilities and getting paid by the government, like a contractor.
The group’s counselor, Derrick Crandall, met with Zinke and his staff on increasing concessioner opportunities in April, and he is planning to present more formal recommendations soon.
“Why is it inherently a Park Service responsibility to clean toilets, pick up trash and take reservations for campgrounds? Is that something that the agency has a particular expertise on, is it in their wheelhouse?” Crandall said.
“What the concessioners would say is that they do believe that there is an important role for the Park Service in campgrounds in the future, but that is in the interpretation role, the educational role. It’s not necessarily taking reservations, cleaning bathrooms.”
A handful of NPS sites have outsourced campground operation, and the NPS already has the authority to expand concessioning, as Crandall and others are asking for.
Crandall also wants private companies to take over collection of fees and says the park service should explore allowing more privately run facilities like lodges in parks that don’t have them.
He argued that private companies could perform many of those functions better. And since the NPS is unlikely to get significant new funding, concessioners present an opportunity for growth.
“Adversity is the mother of invention,” he said. “And I think this administration is more concerned about the backlog in deferred maintenance and about reducing federal spending overall than the previous administration.”
The private sector could also improve the park experience, Crandall argued, by bringing Wi-Fi, electronic payment options and all-around better accommodations.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Zinke is interested in seeing where the NPS can expand the use of concessioners and other private partnerships, with an eye to making sure the agency focuses on its proper functions.
“The secretary is interested in innovative solutions that allow our park rangers to focus on things like land management and interpretive services and bring in partners who want to make investments into our parks to manage other aspects of the visitor experience and help address the maintenance backlog,” Swift said.
“We already have thousands of public-private partnerships that are already happening in parks and federal lands, expanding the best of the best and looking at new solutions should not be off the table.”
The NPS does not currently have a director, and Trump hasn’t nominated anyone for the job.
Conservationists are pushing back against the administration. They say any form of privatization is a slippery slope that won’t improve the parks.
“It’s not realistic that a lot of additional revenue could be generated for the park service without increasing costs for American families to enjoy campgrounds and other park services,” said John Garder, director for budget and appropriations at the National Park Conservation Association.
“It would be problematic, to say the least, to see American families of lesser means priced out of national parks.”
Gardner points to previous extensive reviews, as recently as the 1990s, into shifting more NPS services to the private sector.
“What they largely found was that it was impractical,” he said.
Green advocates are also worried that having employees of private companies interact with parkgoers would hurt the park experience.
“This is the face of our public land agencies and the people on the front lines,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor who studies public lands issues and once worked as a park ranger.
“We’re decoupling what people’s experiences are with their public land managers when we start contracting all this out,” he said.
Crandall dismissed the concerns and emphasized that many NPS duties, like guidance and law enforcement, ought to stay with federal workers.
“We are not talking about privatizing,” he said. “We are talking about realigning how the Park Service role can be where we all think the Park Service should be: interpretation, law enforcement, other kinds of services.”