Is Business the Cavalry?

Recently, you may have heard discussion or seen letters-to-the-editor from park concessionaires who advocate for turning more of the State Park System over to commercial enterprises, thereby reducing the number of parks closed during this fiscal crisis. The general public, legislature, and media may warmly embrace such proposals, considering this current political environment in which business is “good” and government is “bad.”

Border Field SP Gate ClosedThere are many elements of this proposal that just don’t survive further scrutiny (not the least of which is the likelihood that concessionaires would only be interested in parks that are already profitable and wouldn’t be subject to closure anyway).  I’d like to focus on the threat that such proposals make to the fundamental purpose of California State Parks.

The mindset that promotes privatization of our State Parks only considers that parks exist to provide attractions for the visiting public.  Yes, we’re here to provide opportunities for active and passive outdoor recreation and for people to visit interesting historic sites.  But our system of parks (and our mission) is about so much more; and it’s that “so much more” that will suffer if it is turned over to entities whose first objective has to be profit.

We indeed provide many of the coolest attractions in the state.  People are willing and able to pay to enjoy those attractions and I’m all for maximizing revenue where we can.  The problem with a business-run State Park System is that so much of what we are also about either can not or should not pay for itself.

  • The habitats we protect and enhance can not pay.
  • The wildlife who find sanctuary can not pay.
  • The school groups we educate should not pay.
  • The cultural heritage of the state that we preserve can not pay.
  • The next generation upon generation of Californians who need intact parks can not pay.
  • The lower income groups who need parks as much as anybody else can not pay.

These are all the parts of our mission that will be compromised under a business-first model.  They are the reason that California State Parks is government agency: in the late 19th century and early 20th century, citizens realized that parks (like primary education and law enforcement) were a benefit to all of society, managed and held in the public trust. 

We are not merely a group of attractions – 

we serve habitat, wildlife, schools, cultural heritage, and future generations!

– Clay Phillips, TRNERR Reserve Manager,
Acting District Superintendent San Diego Coast District, California State Parks