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Backpacker Magazine – November/December 2005

National Parks Inc.

Like it or not, national parks are officially in the business of business. Will this focus destroy the soul of a national institution--or save it in these lean times?

by: Eryn Brown

In 21st-century parks, businesspeople and business ideas seem to pop up from under every rock. The million-dollar question is this: Will privatization and other MBA-minded strategies help the parks fix unkempt trails, fight invasive species, and otherwise stay afloat as budgets fail to match rising costs--or is this fixation on bottom-line bean-counting sacrificing something sacred and priceless?

The mix of commerce, recreation, and preservation is hardly new. Beloved parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon were built on the backs of the railroads, which donated land to boost ridership on far-flung lines. Concessions such as lodges, gift shops, and guide services have operated profitably on park lands since the get-go. And park supervisors have long had to think like CEOs when they write their budgets and manage their staffs.

The NPS is a gigantic, complex operation, encompassing 388 parks spread over 84 million acres of land, and employing 20,000 full- and part-time staff. The agency's approved operating budget for fiscal year 2005 was $1.68 billion. More than $1 billion in additional funding was allotted for fixing or restoring roadways, sewer systems, historic structures, trails, and other projects President Bush spoke of when he mentioned the "maintenance backlog" in campaign speeches. Roughly $75 million more came from private supporters--nonprofit "Friends" groups, philanthropic donors, and the like. Another $50 million was generated in profit-sharing from the $800 million in revenues collected by concessions. Long story short: A lot of money flows in and out of the NPS, and many parks are working internally to make sure those funds get used efficiently.

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