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Editorial: Privatize All Ops at Calif. State Parks

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June 12, 2013 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor's Note: The following editorial appeared in the San Mateo, Calif., Daily Journal.

John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, recently announced the formation of a study commission tasked with drawing up a plan to reinvent the state’s troubled park system.

Our longstanding view of government commissions is that they almost always are a waste of both time and money. They come up with recommendations that infrequently are implemented.

But we are inclined to reserve prejudgment of the newly created Parks Forward Commission, not the least because it appears that its membership will not be dominated by representatives of activist environmental groups, nonprofit parks associations and the state park rangers association.

Instead, there promises to be strong representation from the state’s business community, including panel chairman, venture capitalist Lance Conn. And the commission’s 18 months of work will be privately financed, by the James Irvine Foundation, among other philanthropies.

“Our goal is not to write a love letter to the parks,” said Mr. Conn, “or to create a theoretical white paper that gathers dust, but to come up with a broad and innovative plan to create a sustainable future for our parks.”

That Mr. Laird chose Mr. Conn to chair the commission — which oversees nearly 1.4 million acres, including more than 280 miles of coastline, 625 miles of lake and river frontage, nearly 15,000 campsites and 3,000 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails — suggests that he recognizes the system needs to be run less like a charity and more like a business.

A year ago, the state Department of Parks and Recreation was under orders to close a quarter of the state’s 280 parks, after a $22 million cut to its $779 million budget.

Closures were averted with the discovery of $23 million in “surplus” funds secretly maintained by the parks agency, itself an indictment of the department’s management practices; and which led to passage of last year’s California State Parks Stewardship Act, the law calling upon Mr. Laird’s agency to create the Parks Forward Commission.

We believe the state park system would be well-served by privatizing some or all operations at some if not all its parks. And a report last year by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concurs.

Not only would the state government save in the low tens of millions of dollars by privatization, the LAO estimated, private companies would procure new equipment and implement new projects more quickly than the state.

Currently, the state park system has some 200 concessions contracts with private providers, which generate roughly $12.5 million a year in state revenue. The contractors provide a range of park amenities, including food service, recreational gear rentals, shopping, golf courses, marinas and lodging.

Mr. Laird promises that the commission will not rule out any good ideas to improve the state park system. “Everything is going to be on the table,” he told the Associated Press last week.

That absolutely ought to include an expanded role for the private sector in park operations, with, of course, oversight by Mr. Laird’s department.

 

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