Archive for the ‘Private Recreation Management’ Category.

Trying, And Failing to Get Transparency About the Government Shutdown of Private Park Operators

Hans Bader submitted a FOIA on October 9 about US Forest Service and Dept. of Agriculture decision-making leading up to the unprecedented shutdown of private operations on US Forest Service land.  I have seen the FOIA results and -- almost laughably -- virtually all of the documents relate to the end of the shutdown, and all of the documents are dated after the date of his FOIA.  In other words, the US Forest Service essentially ignored the documents requested by the FOIA request and submitted a stacks of unrelated documents.

More from Mr. Bader here

It's Not A Just Revenue Problem in Arizona Parks, It's A Cost Problem

Former Arizona State Parks director Ken Travous takes to the editorial page of our local paper to criticize current park management and the Arizona legislature for not sending enough money to parks"

Things were looking pretty good, and I guess that’s the problem. In some odd kind of way, employing some type of sideways logic, the Legislature deemed that if State Parks is getting along well, it must be out of our control. So, after 15 years of parks acting like a business, the Legislature decided to act like a government and take their money. A little bit here and there in the beginning, to test the public reaction, and then in breathtaking swaths.

Heritage Fund ... gone. Enhancement fund ... swiped. General fund? No way. A $250,000 bequest? Oops, they caught us; better put it back.

State Parks now has a mountainous backlog of maintenance projects all because the Legislature would rather wholly own a failure than share a success. We need to put people in the halls that care about those things that we want our children to enjoy, and a governor who will stand in the breach when the next onslaught appears.

I agree with Travous that our parks could use some more funds.  But what Mr. Travous ignores is that the seeds of this problem were very much sown on his watch.

Travous points out that revenues in the parks expanded to nearly $10 million when he was in charge.  But left unsaid is that at the same time agency expenses on his watch ballooned to a preposterous $33 million a year**.  At every turn, Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

I am not much of a political analyst, but my reading is that the legislature cut park funds because it lost confidence in the ability of Arizona State Parks to manage itself.   Did they really need to cut, say, $250,000 from parks to close a billion dollar budget hole?  Arizona State Parks had its budgets cut because the legislature did not think it was acting fiscally prudent, like cutting off a child's allowance after he has shown bad judgement.

I have met with current Director Bryan Martyn and much of the Arizona State Park staff.  Ken Travous is not telling them anything they do not know.  Of course they would like more funds to fix up their parks.  But they understand that before they can expect any such largess, they need to prove that Arizona State Parks will use its funds in a fiscally sensible manner.  And I get the impression that they are succeeding, that the legislature is gaining confidence in this agency.  The irony is that  Arizona State Parks will be able to grow and get more funds only when it has overcome the problems Travous left for them.

 

 ** Footnote:  Getting an actual budget number for ASP is an arduous task.  I once talked to a very smart local consultant named Grady Gammage who worked with parks and finally despaired of accurately laying out the budget and allocating it to tasks.  What this achieves is that it allows insiders to criticize anyone they want as being "misinformed" because almost any number one picks is wrong.   The $33 million figure comes from outside consulting reports.  The headcount numbers come from numbers the ASP information officer gave me several years ago.  Headcount numbers are different today but the ones above are relevant to the agency as it existed when Travous left.

Challenging the Governments Arbitrary Closure of Privately-Funded Parks During the Shutdown

I have not updated this story in a while, but we continue to litigate against the Federal Government over the closure of privately-operated and privately-funded parks on public lands.  The closure is over, obviously, but it is a situation that is very likely to recur and we are attempting to fight this battle now to set a precedent.   The Wall Street Journal's law blog is running an update on the story here.

You can find all my posts from the shutdown here.

Measure of the Job Market

The other day I sent out an email listing a job opening next summer for camp hosts.  The job was in an out of the way place (in Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon) and had been hard to fill.  I have a list of 22,000 people who have asked to have camping jobs sent to them.

The email batch of 22,000 had a 54% open rate.  That is ridiculously high.

When Private Enterprise is Inflamatory

When people ask me about my business, one of the things that is hard to explain is just how deep and visceral the skepticism of private enterprise can be.  I constantly have people take single words I might have uttered in the immediacy of a live TV interview and try to craft straw man positions for me out of them**.  Sometimes it is not even something I said, but something where some lazy journalist has poorly paraphrased my position.

Here is a great example, where a Flagstaff writer (who by the way knows me and my phone number quite well but did not bother to interview me) tries to take my opposition to the government shutdown to paint me with some sort of entitlement.  She lectures me that I don't actually own the land on which I operate, as if that is somehow news to me.  You can read my comments if you are interested, but the issue with the shutdown was the lawlessness of Administration officials, not any sense that I am entitled to the land any more than my lease contract allows me to be.  (As an aside, she seems to be expressing a strong theory of landlord rights, that my landlord (the US Forest Service) should have the absolute right to shut me down whenever they want.  Why is it that I don't think she has the same position vis a vis other tenants and landlords?)

By the way, compare her straw man to my actual position on public land, which is likely to the Left of many of my readers:

In my history of public discussions on private operation of public parks, it is no surprise that I run into a lot of skepticism about having any private role at all.  But I also run into the opposite -- folks who ask (or demand) that the government sell all the parks to private buyers.  So why shouldn't privatization of parks just consist of a massive land sale?

The answer has to do with profit potential.  Over time, if in private hands, a piece of land will naturally migrate towards the use which can generate the highest returns.  And often, for a unique piece of land, this most profitable use might not be a picnic area with a $6 entrance fee -- it might instead be something very exclusive which only a few can enjoy, like an expensive resort or a luxury home development (think: Aspen or Jackson Hole).  The public has asked its government to own certain unique lands in order to control their development and the public access to them.

Public ownership of unique lands, then, tends to have the goal of allowing access to and enjoyment of a particular piece of land for all of the public, not just a few.  Typically this entails a public agency owning the land and controlling the types of uses allowed on the land and the nature and style of facility development.  I call these state activities controlling the "character" of the land and its use.  (One could legitimately argue that private land trusts could fulfill the same role, and in fact I have personally been a supporter of and donor to private land trusts.  However, I am not an expert in this field and will leave this discussion to others).

Having established a role for the government in setting the character of the lands we call "parks," we can then legitimately ask, "does this goal require that government employees actually staff the parks and clean the bathrooms?"

** Postscript:  A couple of years ago I was asked to do an interview with Glen Beck on my proposal to keep open, via private operation, a number of Arizona parks slated for closure.  It was the first time I ever did live TV, and a national show to boot.  I had never seen his show but he had the reputation of being freaky and unpredictable, which just made me more nervous.   Anyway, during the interview I said that typically an agency would contract with us for a group of parks, instead of just one, so the stars could help cover the cost of the dogs.  This terminology is from a framework many business school students learn early, often called a BCG matrix (named after the Boston Consulting Group).  It is a two by two matrix with market share or profitability on one axis and market growth on the other.  Anyway, the profitable high revenue units within a company are stars and the unprofitable stagnant ones are called dogs (the profitable stagnant ones were cash cows and I can't actually remember what was in the fourth box).  You can see this nomenclature is so established they actually put little pictures of stars and dogs in the boxes.

Anyway, it was a poor choice of wording, but the nomenclature is wired do deep in my now it just came out.  The context of the entire interview was that I cared deeply about the parks and that I was offended that the legislature was going to let them close when there was an easy solution at hand.  No matter.  The #2 guy at Arizona State Parks took the video and make the rounds of the state park staff, highlighting my use of the word "dog" and inflaming their rank and file that I thought their parks were bad places and I was bent on destroying them, or something.  Anyway, none of the Arizona Park Staff I have ever talked to has ever seen an operations manual for their parks but they have all seen the video of me saying "dogs."

Postscript #2:  Don't ever think that consulting is different from any other business.  When I was an McKinsey, we had piles of frameworks we used (the 7S organization framework being perhaps the most common and actually fairly useful, as its intent was to take focus away from structure alone in organizational work).  Anyway, McKinsey had to have a growth-share matrix, but to try to differentiate this product a bit they had a 3x3 matrix rather than a 2x2.

Since I am somehow oddly onto a consulting tangent here, the single most useful thing I garnered from McKinsey was the pyramid principle in persuasive and analytical writing.  I have talked to a lot of other ex-McKinsey folks, and almost all of them wonder why the pyramid principle is not taught in high school.  I am not a believer in business books -- I am looking around my office and I don't think I see even one here.  But if I had to offer one book for someone who wanted a business book, this is it.

My Life is Now Complete

A customer of mine sent me this, about a Forest Service park we run in Florida called Juniper Springs. It's a bit crude in parts, but demonstrates the frustration the public had with closing Federal parks that should have stayed open under private operation.

Does it violate Godwin's law to get a 5-star rating from Hitler?

Litigation Virgin no More, and Good News on Parks for the Next Shutdown

My company has been sued a few times for slip and fall type stuff but I have never in my life been the plaintiff in a legal action.  As is perhaps appropriate given my political leanings, my first ever suit was against the the Federal government, specifically against the Forest Service seeking an injunction against their closure of the campgrounds we operate in the recent shutdown.

Unfortunately, the case reached the court on the day the shutdown lifted, but the judge was still very helpful in giving the Forest Service a swift kick in the butt to hurry them along so they didn't drag their feet reopening us.,

I had feared that we would lose the opportunity to set a precedent.  Since the shutdown was over I though the Court might consider this issue moot.  But apparently one can continue with such litigation to set a precedent if there is reason to think the circumstances will recur.  And the government attorney was kind enough to make a statement right in the court transcript (granted in context of a different argument) that this same shutdown situation is likely to reoccur as soon as early next year.

The good news is that we appear to have an argument that the Court is willing to entertain.  In fact, the statement below was a statement by the judge in the hearing (it's from the hearing transcript and Q&A with the government attorney and not from any official opinion).  It is not in any way binding but it gives us some confidence to try to proceed to get a ruling on the legality of our closure now, so we have it in our pocket for next time.  Here is the Court's statement, addressing the government attorney:

Well, the basic problem is that the Forest Service never should have closed these that were permitted properties.  And they in fact violated the agreement they had with these plaintiffs in doing so without necessity and determining they had a right to do so, which I don't think they did....

[the Forest Service has] nothing to do with the administration and management of the campgrounds other than the inspections at any given time.

So, what they have done is unreasonably close these parks, preventing the concessioners who pay a premium in order to get this permit and lease the property under the requirements in this permit -- and the Forest Service was very ill-advised to make the decision to close these grounds under these circumstances, where you have given up the maintenance and administration of these campsites.

I understand the overall obligation for public safety, but you have delegated that to private entities.  And you took it away when it wasn't costing you a dollar to leave it as was.  And in fact, that's where  we get into the restraint of trade and the fact that there are losses which are most likely uncompensatable.

 

By the way the case was National Forest Recreation Association et. al. vs. Tom Tidwell.  My company, among others, was al.

 

Forest Service Closing Only Small Private Campground Operators, Not Closing Large Ski Corporations or State Parks that Operate on Forest Service Land

As readers will know, the US Forest Service has issued and unprecedented and unnecessary order to close over a thousand privately-funded campgrounds that don't take one dime of Federal money (example here).  All the 100+ parks we operate in the US Forest Service have been ordered closed.

But there appears to be more to this story.  There are several groups that operate parks on National Forest lands under agreements nearly identical to ours who appear to have been exempted from the closure order.

  • Large corporations that run ski resorts and certain other large resort properties on National Forest lands have been exempted.  It should be noted that ski resorts operators, unlike campground operators, have full-time lobbyists stationed in Washington and can afford in-house staff lawyers to fight these kinds of orders.  My guess is that knowing they would immediately get sued if they ordered larger private firms to close, the USFS focused only on smaller and more helpless private firms.
  • Many state parks, including at least 3 in Arizona and many in California, are actually on US Forest Service land and operate through special use permits almost identical to those we have with the USFS, yet none of these parks have been asked to close  (Slide Rock and Fool Hollow State Park in Arizona and Burney Falls SP in California are just a few examples of state parks that operate on US Forest Service land).

In other words, the US Forest Service seems to be issuing closure orders inconsistently, targeting only private operators who are too small to fight back.  The USFS has not been especially clear how they are justifying this order (perhaps since it can't be justified) but they have hinted that it is either because a) they can no longer "administer" these contracts, whatever that means since they have no day-to-day administration responsibilities or b) they are removing everyone from Federal lands.  Note, though, that both explanation "a" or "b" would apply equally to ski resorts and state parks operating on Federal land leases which are not being closed.

I will also add that the USFS is continuing to allow individuals to hike and camp in non-developed areas of the forests.  I have no problem with this -- there is no reason for the USFS to halt public access to public land just because their employees are getting a paid vacation.  But this just highlights how crazy and inconsistent their policies are.  People can camp in the National Forest everywhere except in developed campgrounds where private companies who take no Federal money normally have employees on site to clean up trash and provide security and prevent fires.  Many campers take good care of the land but some do not, and driving these campers out of privately-operated developed sites into dispersed areas where their impact cannot be mitigated is just another way these actions increase rather than decrease costs.

 

First Explanation in Writing As To Why USFS Is Closing Privately-Funded Parks

From our shutdown order:

Congress has not provided appropriations for fiscal year 2014.  Pursuant to applicable legal requirements in the Antideficiency Act and Attorney General opinions addressing agency operations in the absence of appropriations, the Forest Service is unable to administer federally-owned recreation facilities.  Consequently these facilities will be shut down and posted accordingly with signs provided, with gates locked where they exist, restrooms locked, and water systems shut down.   Visitors in occupied sites would be given 48 hours to vacate, with the area shut down as the last visitor leaves, not to exceed 48 hours.

In other words, we pay all the bills, run the parks in an independent manner, have no USFS people stationed in the parks, but we have to shut down because the Forest Service can no longer "administer" the facilities.  Huh?  What day-to-day administration is necessary.  Remember that the USFS itself did not think their presence was necessary, originally confirming on Tuesday that we would stay open as we had in all past shutdowns.

We often go weeks and months in these facilities without ever seeing a USFS manager.  The USFS considers it so important to have staff available to "administer" these facilities that none of their recreation personnel work on weekends or on holidays, by far and away the busiest and most difficult times in these facilities.

PS-  I see the part about the Attorney General.  Did Eric Holder decide to close us?  Doesn't he know that poor and minorities disproportionately use public vs. private recreation?  Isn't that a disparate impact issue in closing us?

The Cost of Closing Parks that Don't Have to be Closed

I got this email a few minutes ago.

Mr. Meyer:
I just wanted to thank you for the letter you wrote to our senators and congressmen.

My fiance and I are scheduled to be married this Saturday at Red Rock Crossing. On Tuesday, I called and was told that the park would be open and unaffected by shutdown.

As you can imagine, the news today has me very worried. We have spent literally thousands of dollars to have a special couple of hours in the park with our families who are flying in from all over the United States and the thought of not being able to have our wedding in our dream location is upsetting to say the least.

I hope and pray that your parks and campgrounds continue to stay open.

Red Rock Crossing is a privately-operated campground that the USFS has slated for closure Friday not because it uses too much Federal money (it in fact uses none and pays rent to the Treasury) but because the White House apparently wants to artificially increase the cost of the shutdown.  Well, you got your wish Mr. President.

PS- for those who are concerned, we are going to find a way to help this guy get married, even if I have to sneak them into the facility myself.

Its Official: US Forest Service Closing over 1000 Privately-Funded Parks

The US Forest Service, under pressure apparently from the White House, has reversed both its historical precedent as well as its position yesterday and will close over 1000 public parks and campgrounds that are operated by private companies without using one dime of public money.  Why does the fact that our landlord the US Forest Service is going on an unpaid vacation mean that tenants of theirs have to close up shop too?  We have no idea.

This is how I explained it in my letter to my senators:

My company, based in North Phoenix, operates over 100 US Forest Service campgrounds and day use areas under concession contract. Yesterday, as in all past government shutdowns, the Department of Agriculture and US Forest Service confirmed we would stay open during the government shutdown. This makes total sense, since our operations are self-sufficient (we are fully funded by user fees at the gate), we get no federal funds, we employ no government workers on these sites, and we actually pay rent into the Treasury.

However, today, we have been told by senior member of the US Forest Service and Department of Agriculture that people “above the department”, which I presume means the White House, plan to order the Forest Service to needlessly and illegally close all private operations. I can only assume their intention is to artificially increase the cost of the shutdown as some sort of political ploy.

The point of the shutdown is to close non-essential operations that require Federal money and manpower to stay open. So why is the White House closing private operations that require no government money to keep open and actually pay a percentage of their gate revenues back to the Treasury? We are a tenant of the US Forest Service, and a tenant does not have to close his business just because his landlord goes on a vacation.

PJ Tatler Interviews Me on Government Closure of Privately-Funded Parks

The interview is here by Bryan Preston

My Plea to Stop the White House From Closing Privately-Funded, Privately-Operated Parks

Here is my letter to my Congresspersons:

Senator John McCain

Senator Jeff Flake

Representative David Schweikert

 

Help! Administration Orders Shut Down of Privately-Operated Parks in National Forest

Parks that require no Federal money, and actually pay rent to the Treasury, are being required to close

 

Sirs:

My company, based in North Phoenix, operates over 100 US Forest Service campgrounds and day use areas under concession contract. Yesterday, as in all past government shutdowns, the Department of Agriculture and US Forest Service confirmed we would stay open during the government shutdown. This makes total sense, since our operations are self-sufficient (we are fully funded by user fees at the gate), we get no federal funds, we employ no government workers on these sites, and we actually pay rent into the Treasury.

However, today, we have been told by senior member of the US Forest Service and Department of Agriculture that people “above the department”, which I presume means the White House, plan to order the Forest Service to needlessly and illegally close all private operations. I can only assume their intention is to artificially increase the cost of the shutdown as some sort of political ploy.

The point of the shutdown is to close non-essential operations that require Federal money and manpower to stay open. So why is the White House closing private operations that require no government money to keep open and actually pay a percentage of their gate revenues back to the Treasury? We are a tenant of the US Forest Service, and a tenant does not have to close his business just because his landlord goes on a vacation.

I urge you to help stop the Administration from lawlessly taking arbitrary and illegal actions to artificially worsen the shutdown by hurting innocent hikers and campers. I am not asking you to restore any funding, because no funding is required to keep these operations open. I am asking that the Administration be required to only close government services that actually require budget resources.

 

Sincerely,

Warren Meyer

 

PERC Case Study on Private Operation of Public Parks

Well, talk about good timing.  My article on private operation of public parks has been published by PERC and is now up at their web site.  It's called "A Tale of Two Parks" and compares the costs of private and public operation, among a number of other issues.

Not happy with how government-operated parks are being used as a pawn in today's budget battles?  Check it out.

Government Closing Parks It Does Not Fund or Operate

I mentioned in an earlier article that the Administration is threatening to close US Forest Service parks it does not even fund or run, privately operated parks that happen to have the Federal government as a landlord.  In fact, in our case, we pay the US Forest Service between 8 and 22 percent of revenues as a concession fee, so by threatening to close us it is costing them, not saving them extra money.

Apparently, the NPS is already doing this:

National Park Officials closed down the educational Claude Moore Colonial Farm near the CIA in McLean, Va., even though the federal government doesn't fund or staff the park popular with children and schools. Just because the privately-operated park is on Park Service land, making the federal government simply its landlord, the agency decided to close it.

A Claude Moore Colonial Farm official said that the privately-funded staff is on the job Wednesday, but barred from letting anybody visit the historically accurate buildings or animals. Anna Eberly, the managing director, sent out an email decrying the decision and rude National Park Service staff handling the closure.

Pointing to Park Service claims that parks have to be closed because the agency can’t afford staff during the government closure, Eberly wrote: “What utter crap. We have operated the Farm successfully for 32 years after the NPS cut the Farm from its budget in 1980 and are fully staffed and prepared to open today. But there are barricades at the Pavilions and entrance to the Farm. And if you were to park on the grass and visit on your own, you run the risk of being arrested. Of course, that will cost the NPS staff salaries to police the Farm against intruders while leaving it open will cost them nothing.”

She added: “In all the years I have worked with the National Park Service, first as a volunteer for six years in Richmond where I grew up, then as an NPS employee at the for eight very long years and now enjoyably as managing director for the last 32 years — I have never worked with a more arrogant, arbitrary and vindictive group representing the NPS. I deeply apologize that we have to disappoint you today by being closed but know that we are working while the National Park Service is not — as usual.”

This is purely political -- it costs rather than saves the government money.

Still Open, But....

Our concession operations on Federal lands are still mostly open today (we had two US Forest Service local offices ask us to close, but these are both offices that have a tradition of interpreting the rules in odd ways).

By all the rules, being open to the public is the right decision.  We are tenants on US Forest Service land and operate entirely outside of the government budget, receiving no money from the government and we employ no government workers.  No government employee has a duty station in any of the parks we operate.   There is no more reason to close our operations than to, say, ban cars from Federal highways during a shutdown.

However, apparently we have been told by several local folks in the Forest Service that the higher ups (this tends to mean folks up in the Administration) are re-evaluating our status.  I do not know what is going on today, but in the past this has often meant that the administration is considering closing us to make the government closure as painful as possible.  After all, as I have written here and here, parks closures seem to be one of the few things anyone notices in a government shut down.

Update:  Our most recent guidance:  "1.  The Forest Service is allowing concessionaires to continue to operate as long as no Forest Service personnel is needed to ensure safety."  It looks like we may have to close a few sites that are dependent on USFS operated water systems, but otherwise most of our locations will be open.  I am hoping to get out a press release and update our web site but things are still fluid this morning.

Update #2:  Definitely still open everywhere but in one location (Laguna Mountain, CA) where we depend on a USFS-operated water system that will close.  no closure press release 2013

A Third of Government is Shutting Down and The Only Lost Function Anyone Can Name is Parks

First, you did not read the title wrong.  A government shutdown means only about a third of the government actually shuts down.  But the more amazing thing is that given multiple opportunities to name what we would lose if this one third goes away, all anyone can name is parks.  This is from a Q&A by the Associated Press via Zero Hedge, which says we would lose parks and have some delays in new disability applications and, uh, we would lose parks.

About one-third of the government will shut down. About 800,000 of about 2.1 million federal employees will be sent home without pay. National parks will close.

NASA will continue to keep workers at Mission Control in Houston and elsewhere to support the International Space station, where two Americans and four other people live. Aside from that only about 3 percent of NASA's 18,000 workers will keep working.

The military and other agencies involving safety and security would continue to function. These include air traffic controllers, border patrol and law enforcement officers. Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits payments would continue, but there could be delays in processing new disability applications.

A partial shutdown that lasts no more than a few days wouldn't likely nick the economy much. But if the shutdown were to persist for two weeks or more, the economy would likely begin to slow, economists say.

Extended closures of national parks would hurt hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses. Delays in processing visas for overseas visitors could interrupt trade. And the one-third of the federal workforce that lost pay would cut back on spending, thereby slowing growth.

So there you have it -- we lay off 800,000 government workers and the only two losses the AP can come up with is that national parks will close and those 800,000 people will have less to spend.    Since the NPS employs about 22,000 people, this means that the other 778,000 have a contribution to the economy that consists mainly of drawing and then spending a salary?

I would love to see the government shutdown rules modified to add National Parks to the critical assets that remain open in a shutdown, since this seems the only thing anyone cares about.  Then it would be fascinating to see how the downside of the shutdown would be spun.  I can see the headlines now.   "AP:  Millions of TPS reports go unfiled".

Update:  My company runs parks under concession contract in the National Forest and for other government agencies.  In all previous shutdowns, we have remained open, since we pay money into the government budget rather than draw money out, and since the parks we operate employ no government workers.  This time, though, we are starting to get notices we have to shut down too.  This may be an attempt by the administration to artificially make the shutdown worse than it needs to be.  I will update you as I learn more.

Coyote in the Press on Parks

Handshake Magazine, a publication of the International Finance Corporation (a branch of the World Bank), has a series of interviews on parks and PPP's.  It has an article by Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation on Park PPP's on page 32, a case study about our company and its operations on page 36, and an interview with me starting on page 38.

Privatization and Private vs. Public Profits

My new column is up at Forbes.com.  A sample:

The most frequent argument I hear is that "its wrong to make a profit on public lands."  Most recently, I heard this from a manager of a large campground and lakefront day use area who works for a federal agency.  I was not normally in my usual diplomatic mood, and I snapped "so you work for free?"

If my company operated that park for the federal agency, a park that nets about $300,000 a year in visitor revenue, my company would probably make $15,000 or $20,000 a year in profit doing so, if all goes well, which it seldom does (this is a very low margin business).  I have no idea what that park manager makes in salary and benefits, but I would be surprised if it were less than $55,000 plus benefits, and probably more.  Why is his $55,000  "clean" but my $15,000 for the same task "dirty"?  Particularly when the increase in his and his staff's salaries and their increases in benefits has left the park financially tottering and on the brink of closure?

Go read it all.

Update:  I have added some comments on privatization design on the Privatization blog

Struggling with Global Warming

The campgrounds we operate for the US Forest Service in Wisconsin does not seem quite ready to open

two lakes

Privatizing the TVA -- I'm Doing My Part

Several sources have reported that the new Obama budget calls for privatizing the TVA.  My company is already doing our part -- we have privately taken over the operation of four TVA campgrounds (under a long-term lease) and are looking at others.  Our first was here, and has turned out to be a really good operation for us.  It is impossible to get bank loans for improvements on leased land, but over time, by applying cash flow from the operation back into improvements, we have put nearly a million dollars in to the property.  We took on three new TVA campgrounds this winter and are just now scrambling to get them open.

Punished for Speech

I have debated a while whether to run this personal experience, and in the end have reached a (perhaps wimpy) compromise with myself to run it but disguise the agency involved.  

As most of your know, I run a company that helps keep public parks open by privately operating them.  As part of that business, it is unsurprising that I would run a specialized blog on such public-private recreation partnerships.  Most of the blog is dedicated not to selling my company per se, since there are not many who do what we do, but advancing the concept.  In particular, I spend a lot of time responding to objections from folks who are concerned that private operators will not serve the public well or care for public lands as well as civil servants do.

One such objection is around law enforcement -- parks agencies who oppose this model argue that my company cannot possibly replace them because all their rangers are law enforcement officials and mine, a certification my private employees can't match.  So a while back I wrote an article discussing this issue.

I argued that parks were not some lawless Road Warrior-style criminal anarchy and simply did not need the level of law enforcement concentration they have.   We run nearly 175 public parks and do so just fine relying on support from the sheriff's office, as does every other recreation business.

I argued that so many rangers were law enforcement officials because they have a financial incentive to get such certification (e.g. more pay and much better pension, plus the psychic benefits of carrying a gun and a badge) and not because of any particular demand for such services.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I argued that providing customer service with law enforcement officials can cause problems -- after all, McDonald's does not issue citations to their customers for parking incorrectly.  To back up the last point, I linked to an article in the Frisky (of all places) and a Yelp review of a park where customers bombarded the site with one star reviews complaining about the rangers harassing them with citations and ruining their visit.

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked.  I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state.  In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.  I found out only later that there is a very extreme law enforcement culture in this agency -- that in fact you historically could not even be promoted to higher management positions without the law enforcement badge, truly making this an agency of police officers who happen to run parks.  I would normally quote the letter's text here, but it is impossible to do so and keep the agency's name confidential.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon.  Rather than sending something fiery as the first salvo, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed.  To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it.  So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

I am reminded of all this and write it in response to this story passed on by Ken at Popehat.  It is a story of free speech and petty government retribution for it.  I will let you read the article to get the details, but I will repost the original speech that earned Rick Horowitz a good dollop of government harassment.  As an aside, I realize in posting this how far from the law and order conservative I have come since my early twenties.

Your approach should be to try to live your life, as much as possible, without giving them one minute of your time. If they want to talk to you, you should ask, “Am I being detained, or arrested?” If they say “no,” then you walk away. If they tell you that you cannot leave, then you stay put, but don’t talk to them. Because they aren’t following the law when they detain you for no reason.

And if the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

Let me repeat that:

If the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

So this is the proposal I set forth:

To the government, you can start following the law, or none of us will.

To everyone else, if the government will not follow the law, you should stop pretending law means anything.

It’s time to step away from the wrong.

Start fighting over everything!

 

 

Coyote on HuffPost Live Discussing Parks

Here is  a link to the panel discussion.  I don't come in until almost 7 minutes in, but then I get a lot of innings after that.   For those who post the inevitable "you look nothing like I thought you would" comments, please post what you thought I looked like.  I am always curious.  What mental image am I projecting that I get this comment so often when my picture gets posted somewhere?

Huffington Post Live on Privatization and National Parks

Conference Invitation: Private Management of Public Parks

For those who may be interested, we are having a one-day conference on public-private partnerships for park operations on November 7 in Reno, Nevada.  The US Forest Service and those of us in the business have gotten a lot of inquiries from recreation agencies over the last year or so.  These folks are trying to keep parks open despite declining budgets.

The USFS figured out a way to do this over 30 years ago, and only now are other agencies starting to copy the model  (California State Parks just started using it this year, for example).  The USFS, like most agencies, charges a fee for the public to visit certain parks or to use campgrounds.  They found that they could not cover their high operating costs with just these user fees, and so had to use a lot of general fund money to keep the parks open.  Many complain that public recreation user fees are too high, but typically they cover only about half the agency's costs to run the park.  When general fund money started to go away, the USFS faced park closures, exactly the situation today in many state and local parks agencies.

The USFS found that private operators with a lower cost position and more flexibility could keep these parks open using just the user fees, and in fact actually pay the USFS some rent.  So instead of having to subsidize the park's operation with tax money, the parks began to generate funds for the USFS.

It took decades to get this right.  The USFS made mistakes in how they grouped parks into contracts, how they wrote the contracts, and how they did oversight.  The private companies made operating mistakes and some failed financially at awkward times, since when this program started there did not exist a pool of experienced operators.  But over the years, many of these problems have been worked out, and most privately-run sites operate to a standard at least as high as publicly-run parks.  Here in Arizona, three of the top five highest-rated public campgrounds are operated by private companies in the USFS program.

At this conference, both private operators and agency people experienced with this model will describe how it works as well as years of hard-won lessons learned.

The conference is free to most government agency officials, academics, and media and we have obtained a really inexpensive $49 hotel rate  (since by definition the agencies most interested in the model don't have much money).   The web site that describes the agenda and logistics is here.  Readers of this site who don't fit one of these categories but would still like to attend can email me at the link in the above site and I will get you in.

Some Privatization Updates

I just wrote three new articles for the Privatization Blog.

The first looks at which types of public decisions should stay public in a privatization effort

The second looks at implementation issues and learning in privatization

The third acknowledges that privatization efforts can fall into cronyism, but points out that generally in these cases the public alternative falls into the same behaviors.  A great example is prisons, where privatization is derided by folks like Think Progress for the lobbying the prison companies do both for contracts and harsher laws, but they never acknowledge that public prison unions have demonstrated the same behaviors and for much longer.