If this column seems familiar, it’s an argument I’ve run for over three decades. The principles and conclusion don’t change, only the characters do.
I just heard Brian Schweitzer note that 9,000,000 people visit Montana each year. They don’t come to see heap leach mines or Superfund sites. Most come to experience our natural wonders, our wildlife, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Many of our visitors are attracted to the parks, have great memories, and return again and again.
America established the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. National parks still rank as one of the world’s best ideas. This can’t be said for the park management whenever governments control.
The problem is politics. Wise environmentalists understand that political management squanders nature’s gifts. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has issued a series of “Take Action” bulletins and a report card on the management of our parks.
Their overall grade was a D-. They give visitor experience an F. (Economists would ask, Why then are visitations expanding if the experiences are so awful?) The highest grade, a C+, was for park funding.
The problems they identify are neither new nor passing phenomena. Many of the national parks and monuments have long suffered from neglect. The system is marked by deteriorating roads, buildings, sewage treatment plants, and unstable ecosystems.
This sorry situation is the predictable result of political management. Congress gets more publicity and votes from creating new parks than from prudent management and maintenance. As a result, sensible priorities are ignored as powerful members of Congress earmark funds for questionable pet projects. So Steamtown, a railroad museum in Pennsylvania, gets priority over treating sewage in Glacier or Yellowstone.
The fundamental problem is not one of bad people but rather institutional arrangements that frustrate best intentions. As my friend Dwight Lee says: “Better outcomes result from superior incentives, not superior people.”
There are three ways to generate cooperative behavior. To reduce injustice and protect the weak from the strong, government is essential. To produce commodities and provide commercial services, the market process excels. For many other public purposes, e.g. hospitals, schools, research institutes, and parks, non-government endowment boards have accomplished a great deal and hold great promise.
Endowment boards (trusts) successfully manage independent schools, hospitals, and museums. Board members have fiduciary responsibility for their organization’s mission. When managing parks, the boards would be charged to prudently manage for highest values: habitat, preservation, recreation, scenery. A trust with regional and national members could ensure sensitive stewardship and freedom from shortsighted Congressional politics.
How could we collect payment from various park beneficiaries? User fees, gifts from membership organizations, concessionaire contracts, and corporate sponsorships all have potential. Trusts generating and managing these funds should foster more support, sensitivity, and responsibility than the current political bureaucracy criticized by the NPCA.
The main stumbling block to adopting trusts is fear of commercialization. We should guard against “Disney-fied” parks: no Timex Old Faithful or Rainier Beer Rainier National Park. To succeed, trustees must be alert to the threat of crass commercialization.
Here as with other environmental issues, we face trade-offs, not perfect solutions. No single set of arrangements is perfect, or even preferable, for all circumstances. We’ve learned that endowment boards, with memberships drawn from environmental, community, business, and science leaders, have incentives to seek subtle, tasteful sponsorships. Wide public support follows.
If trustees fail to honor their accepted mandate to foster values specific to each park, then they suffer loss of position. This brings shame and disgrace. Trustees who violate their mandate are a vanishingly small proportion of the politicians who break promises.
Given the many criticisms of our parks’ ecological and infrastructure decline, trusts surely merit experimentation. The endowment idea is gaining acceptance. Consider New England’s premier park, Acadia. It’s the first national park to have its trails permanently maintained by a private endowment.
National parks are failing to deliver the quality park-lovers demand. Support and management of our national heritage comes best from those who most appreciate and benefit from those parks. When parks must pay their own way through friends and fees, more responsible stewardship follows. The parks are too precious for a precarious dependency on politics. Let’s try trusts.