One of the problems with the pervasiveness of Big Government and more centralized government is when a government shutdown occurs. When the government predominantly or exclusively gets its hands on certain aspects of our lives, certain goods and services are temporarily out of reach during a shutdown, and as a result, casualties ensue while politicians are playing games. One of those causalities is the closing of national parks. Even if some of the parks are in the process of re-opening, national parks should not be held hostage while politicians in the Beltway are putzing around during debt-ceiling or other budgetary fights. After all, isn't public land supposed to be public? If public land is supposed to be both non-excludable and non-rival (at least in theory), why can't people have access to national parks during a government shutdown? Isn't there something that can be done so we can prevent this, or a similar government prohibition of entering public land, in the future?
Well, yes. It's called greater privatization and marketization. The justification for having public land for national parks in the first place is the idea that the markets are not going to protect national parks and the beautiful scenery that accompanies the land. If markets do not have an incentive to protect the pristine of Mother Nature, then the government should. Or so goes the argument. First of all, who do you think is more myopic and will thus be more prone to letting facilities become run down: the politician who typically gets re-elected every two or four years, or the businessman who is looking to stay in business for more than a few years? Second, there are more than 280 million visitors every year. There is evidently a demand for national parks, even if that demand has been distorted by the government. It's hard to have an actual market when government regulates it so heavily. Third, there is less labor rigidity (e.g., 80% of the public agencies' costs are tied up in labor costs) in the private market than there would be for the government bureaucracy, which is to say that the private sector can utilize a work force for less money and more effectively. This also means that if the private management company experiences a budget contraction, they have more flexibility to adapt and cut costs where need be. Since parks are a lower priority in government budgets, they are more prone to shutdowns and massive spending cuts when the government experiences a contracting budget. Fourth, the private sector already has a precedent of managing land, whether that is more indirectly in terms of beaches or country clubs or golf courses, or more directly with many parks, including Disney's Animal Kingdom (yes, they are accredited), Bryant and Central Parks in NYC, or the Fraser River Basin in Canada.
Out of an understanding of political feasibility, national parks will not become completely privatized anytime soon. Even so, I would recommend a step that gradually brings us closer to privatization, which means a public-private partnership that puts a large amount of emphasis on the more privatized aspect of the merger. How would we go about such a merger?
The federal government would lease the land to private land managers in which one of the more predominant conditions of the lease would be to "conserve and preserve the land or lose the lease." Alternatively, one can opt for a conservation easement. In this arrangement, the land would still be public and there would be some government oversight and regulation. However, the management and upkeep of the land would be relegated to the private sector. After a predetermined amount of time, the agency doing oversight can inspect the quality of the private land manager and determine whether they merit a contract renewal.
In case the profit incentive to upkeep the pristine landscape isn't enough for conservationists, another provision in the lease can be to donate a certain percent of profits (within reason, to be sure) to wildlife funds to help further wildlife preservation. This is not ideal, and I don't necessarily recommend this as a provision because private businesses should be allowed to use their profits in whichever way they choose, but I just throw it out there as an option.
We should also give the private managers leeway in terms of charing their own user fees that better reflect market prices. The government currently enacts a price ceiling on national park fees to keep them artificially low. Knowing how well government-enacted price ceilings work (e.g., rent control, human organ market, anti-price gouging laws), I'd rather have slightly higher prices in user fees that are more diffuse in nature than have land overuse that results in congestion and more rundown facilities.
What the private-public partnership does is two-fold. One, it conserves the land so visitors can have an unspoiled view of nature, which is the role of keeping the land public. The second is to use market mechanisms, mainly using incentive to keep costs low, improve on the overall infrastructure, and be more generally responsive to change than a bureaucracy, to not only help the parks generate more profits, but also to improve on the overall quality of the parks. By operating our national parks under this framework, we can enjoy the beauty of nature for many more generations without succumbing to political pressures or economic inefficiencies.