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One of my favorite essay questions assigned to students in my environmental economics class requires them to think about how government ownership and management of National Parks differs from alternative arrangements. I do not wish to write my version of the essay here. I do want to make a few observations.

First, you would be surprised by what I call the compressed spring effect. Before I ask questions like this (I can tell you about others soon), imagine a student’s thoughts to lie on a compressed spring. As soon as I ask the question, it’s like letting go of each of the ends of the springs and their thoughts instantly get violently tossed to each end of the spring. In this case, when I ask them to think about how our public lands are managed, they immediately think that I am asking if they prefer 100% government ownership and operation versus 100% private ownership and operation. Not only that, the particular type of private ownership and operation seems to be soul-less profit-hungry recreational firms, sort of a MMA blended with a casino blended with Walt Disney World.

The world, and the question I am asking, has a lot of interesting stuff in between. For example, one might imagine an effective way to preserve our national treasures is to ask, “well, what forces threaten them today, and what institutional arrangements are best set-up to improve that?” For example, on many public lands, the agencies who collect fees do not actually get to keep them (this is slowly changing as some National Parks like Bryce are now in “test” phases of allowing them to keep a portion.). Instead, the dollars generated by campsides, admissions areas, and the like all make their way into the sloppy stew of Washington, DC’s bank account, and then the agencies have to wait for a political process to determine their annual appropriations. Most of you probably can figure out how and why this is a problem. Who wants our national treasures to be subject to political whims? Who wants the stewards of these resources to gain nothing by actually stewarding them well? Who wants to prevent them from being able to prepare for down times and to make investments looking many years out in the future? Who wants to prevent entrepreneurial ideas from being rapidly tested and adopted if successful and rejected  if failed? Who wants to have people in DC guess what the right mix of recreational values, wilderness values, conservation values, extraction values, etc. is? Do we even think under the most optimistic of ethical and special interest situations that any of them have the knowledge to know what is best? Or even close to best?

In any case, there are lots of agencies — public, quasi-public and private that have particular advantages in dealing with some or all of these questions. Private recreation companies are surely better equipped to staff, clean, maintain, upgrade the parts of parks dealing with campgrounds, concessions and otherwise populous aspects of the park. Voluntary trail maintenance and hiking/outdoor organizations are obviously skilled at maintaining particular recreational or natural areas of parks. Local governments and state governments are certainly more attuned to the interests, problems and needs of park visitors, nearby communities and farmers, etc. than public officials in the nation’s capital. And major conservation organizations, legal organizations and research organizations are particularly well suited to handling easements, purchases, preservation, piecing large parcels together, etc. and so forth. In each of these cases, the default view prevails.

But based on the record of each of those other types of organizations, on what basis can people possibly hold the default view? The three outdoor/environmental groups I support the most are the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Interested readers may visit their sites and learn about what they do and don’t do. It will be clear why I support them, and hopefully why you might be interested in similar organizations.

I don’t want to write an essay on my vision for the future of America’s treasured lands — maybe one day I’ll do it. Rather, given the view from above, I think there are three economic observations of importance here.

  1. When people fantasize about “private park ownership” they have in mind the Ken Burns depiction that all national park lands would be trampled and turned into playgrounds and amusement parks, much like Niagara Falls. I respect this possibility, I really do — especially since those sorts of places do exist already (although mostly in places without such natural splendor). But doesn’t this argument reflect an argument from intimidation? Isn’t it begging the question. You see, it just assumes as plain as day that any and all “Niagara-Falls-ization” of our natural treasures is desecration. It’s bad. And clearly no one really wants that. As an economist, let me offer up the possibility that some people do want this. In fact, let me offer up the possibility that a lot more than some people would want this. And just as putting a motel at the base of Niagara Falls would irrevocably change the Niagara Falls experience, so too does NOT putting a hotel there irrevocably change the experience. It behooves one to come up with a way to know what the right use is. Maybe it would be great to have McDonalds suspended across the Grand Canyon?
  2. I’m trying to get you to sneer at me of course. But how about this? Is any tradeoff reasonable in the realm of our National Parks? Some private agencies, such as the National Audubon Society have allowed gas drilling on its lands – the revenues from which could be used to preserve even more land. The Wisconsin Nature Conservancy once allowed (managed) development of a beachfront property it held in order to complete the purchase of a parcel of land in Wisconsin. Given the funding “Crisis” and generally thought to be decrepid state of our National Parks, would it be completely unreasonable to ask the question of whether turning one wondrous amenity into WallyWorld might enable us to protect and conserve, in perpetuity perhaps, the remaining gems scattered about the nation?  To even ask these questions often has one removed from polite company. But I would be seriously moved by any proposal that held out the chance for permanent park protection. Of course, that is not the only way to get there, but my sense is that this is as likely as actually getting management policy right. And of course, this idea wouldn’t exactly work as planned – it would require the funds generated from the sale and operation of WallyWorld actually be used properly. I don’t believe they ever would, so this is a mere mental indulgence of mine.
  3. I have enjoyed far more peace and tranquility in some of my local Monroe County and even Perinton Town parks than on some visits to National Parks. My point? The way we manage and designate parks today is not entirely unlike “Niagara-falls-ization” of the parks anyway? Is there any difference between fighting tens of thousands of cars for a slice of nature than having a massive resort and spa located somewhere near the wondrous amenity we are all scratching and clawing to see? The last two trips I took I ended up spending more time outside the wondrous amenity than near it – to actually get the solitude and wildlife that one might expect to have inside the amenity. Once again, to suggest that the National Parks and other monuments have certain aspects of this “commercialization” is heresy among the default view crowd. But I encourage my readers to spend a mid-August weekend up in Acadia and then reflect for a moment on this post.

3 Responses to “Brothels, Spas, Casinos and Fast Food in Yellowstone”

  1. Michael says:

    To me, it seems that people want to have a “private” national park obtained by public means. What I mean is, a lot of people I know (from environmental courses) want to be able to go to “pristine” wilderness, untouched by human hands, where the role of the government is to make it publically available, at least to them, but to restrict it so that there aren’t too many people (if any others at all).

  2. Rod says:

    Is it really pristine if they allow Wintercow to summer there with his herd?

    Before the Tetons were Grand Teton National Park, they were the private property of the Rockefeller family. The Rockefellers donated the land to the government so it would be preserved for All Time, but they kept a littl bit of it, at the far end of Phelps Lake, where they still have a rustic lodge with a good view of the lake and Death Canyon. Pristine? No, but good enough for government work.

    When I was in college, I had the good fortune to land one of the best summer jobs, working at Teton Valley Ranch, in Kelly. The ranch was the setting for the movie Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance. Teton Valley Ranch bordered the Elk Refuge and had probably the best panoramic view of the Grand Tetons. The ranch was also a half hour’s drive to the parking lot of the Jenny Lake Lodge, where many hikes and backpacks began. The ranch also ran pack trips (horses and mules) into the Yellowstone/Teton Wilderness Areas and into the upper reaches of the Gros Ventre River, which passed through the ranch.

    About 20 years ago, the Wilson family, who owned Teton Valley Ranch, sold the ranch in order to pay estate taxes. Now the ranch is subdivided into really, really expensive “estate” lots for movie stars and other members of the top one percent of wealth holders. Harrison Ford has a ranchette on the plot of land we used to refer to as “Shane’s Cabin.” So the Hollywood big shots who voted for Obama turn out to be the despoilers of Marlboro Country.

    The Teton Valley Ranch camp has moved to a tract of land near DuBois, Wyoming, and the kids who go there still get to hike in the Tetons and take pack trips to Two Ocean Pass, Castle Creek and the Summit of Yount’s Peak, where the ashes of Jack Davis, the cowboy who used to run the pack trips, are scattered.

    Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone are different in the way the public has access to them. Except for some easy trails in and around Jenny Lake and things like rafting down the Snake River, most of Grand Teton’s most spectacular features are only accessible by horseback or by long treks on hikes or backpacks. Senior citizens, handicapped people and all others who cannot make those treks simply cannot commune with nature that much in Grand Teton National Park. Yellowstone, by contrast, has roads everywhere and even boardwalk trails over ground that is unstable (leading to endless paint pots, pools and geysers). And then you have in the middle of it all Old Faithful Lodge, ground zero for souvenirs of Yellowstone, the Tetons and other places in Wyoming.

    All Teton Valley campers who had not been to Yellowstone were required to go on a one-day tour of Yellowstone, including waiting for Old Faithful to spew forth. We counselors always felt duty bound to bring Mary Ellen Wilson back a souvenir even more hideous than the prior counselors had done. One was a gorilla in a ranger outfit, sort of like Smokey of the Jungle. I found a Mr. and Mrs. Smokey Bear, but it was no match for the Gorilla. Mary Ellen also had been given a lamp depicting Smokey planting a tree at the base of Yellowstone Falls.

    Now in my advanced old age, I have to say I hope to get out there some time before I am no longer able to get around under my own power, and I hope I can both hike to Amphitheater Lake one more time and also stay at Old Faithful Lodge. I’ve done enough camping, and I appreciate a good hotel.

  3. […] The city’s fiscal history “has eerie similarities to a Ponzi scheme,” says Bob Deis, the city manager Stockton hired in 2010. Over the years, the city promised employees huge—and unfunded—salaries and benefits, so when trouble struck officials began cutting back on services such as police and fire protection, plus libraries and parks. (wintercow comment here) […]

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