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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?

To be sure, all this belt-tightening isn’t the end of the world for lovers of the park. Grand Teton isn’t the first NPS gem to transfer campsite jobs to private companies – Yellowstone, Denali, and others have, too. But Grand Teton’s move toward privatization, as well as other efforts to shrink its seasonal workforce, is emblematic of the pressure that all parks face today. According to a 2004 study by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit advocacy group, the parks’ budgets are underfunded by about 30 percent. As the gap between how much money they need and how much they get grows wider, park managers are inviting more and more companies, people, and ideas from the private sector to help stretch their dollars. 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.

That’s especially true in today’s computer-driven, budget-slashing era, where parks and businesses appear to have become domestic partners. Budget shortfalls have pushed parks to search for “efficiencies” – cheaper, better ways to do their work. Idealistic Ivy League b-school students descend on the backcountry, senators hold hearings on such sexy subjects as trash-can reduction, and consulting firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers help write concession contracts – essentially helping the NPS sell gorp. Programs with jargony names like Competitive Sourcing Review and Core Operations Analysis eat up more and more of park employees’ time and energy.

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