Agencies retain ownership and control while reducing operating costs and enhancing visitor services…
Since 2008, many public recreation budgets have failed to keep pace with operating needs, and in some cases public parks and recreation areas are literally falling apart due to deferred maintenance. Faced with budget shortfalls, many agencies have had to close public facilities, and such closures will almost certainly accelerate in the next economic downturn.
Over 30 years ago, the US Forest Service (USFS) — which operates thousands of campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails and boat launches in nearly every nook and cranny of the country — faced a similar existential issue. Almost overnight, under environment pressures, the timber sale money that had previously funded its recreation program disappeared.
But despite these recreation budget cuts, most USFS recreation remained open. There was no talk of wholesale park closures and there has been no growing accumulation of deferred maintenance in their most popular sites. In fact, even if Congress and the President again shut down the government, most of its largest recreation areas will remain open.
Why? Because decades ago, the USFS was forced to find and adopt a new model for managing its recreation sites, a model that could easily keep many state, county, and municipal parks open.
A New Model: Public-Private Recreation Partnerships
About 30 years ago, the USFS began experimenting with a new model for running its recreation sites. Today, over half of all USFS recreation facilities are run under this new model, and if weighted by visitation, the number surely would be over 90%.
The USFS began using private operators to run campgrounds and busy day use facilities under a concession arrangement, meaning the private operator collected all revenue and paid all expenses for the site, and paid the USFS a fee for the privilege of doing so. With the stroke of a pen, sites that required appropriated money to operate suddenly were money makers for the USFS. The economics are compelling, and are outlined in this case study from the Property and Environment Resource Center. Recreation sites in this program no longer require public appropriations at all — they are entirely self-sustaining. That is why many USFS recreation sites will remain open even if the government shuts down.
To be clear, the innovation by the Forest Service was not to use concessionaires to provide visitor services — The National Park Service has been employing concessionaires for nearly a century. The US Forest Service extended this model, however, recognizing that concessionaires could be asked to manage a broader array of park operations. And RRM was one of the first private companies to work with the Forest Service on these contracts, and we have over 500 contract-years of experience running hundreds of Forest Service recreation sites.
It is important to understand that this is merely a partnership arrangement — this is not a stealth way to dispose of public lands into private hands. These are highly structured arrangements that require the private operator to conform to numerous restrictions, and the public agency retains ownership and control of the park. In particular, the private operator may not change or add facilities, services, operating hours, or fees without the agency’s written permission. No one, in other words, is out there building a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful under this arrangement (there are several other very predictable critiques of this model, which are answered here).
Benefits of this approach include:
- Substantially lowered costs, converting a park that requires appropriations support into a money maker for the agency
- A new, nimble marketing partners for the agency. Since concessionaires are paid solely with park revenues (rather than a flat fee), private operators benefit from, and therefore have the incentive to encourage, higher visitation.
- For the same reason, partnership brings a new focus on visitor satisfaction, since unhappy guests can quickly reduce revenues in this age of ubiquitous Internet review sites.
- No deferred maintenance — total accountability for staying up to date