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Privatization of state parks anything but simplistic

If you caught only the recent news headlines, such as, "Study says Arizona state parks system would run better privately," you might quickly surmise we should privatize state parks like we're doing with prisons.

Not so fast. That might be what the headline seems to suggest but it certainly doesn't reflect the full content or context of the story, nor does it reflect what the cited report or an earlier study of Arizona State Parks truly recommend when it comes to privatization.

In fall 2009 the Morrison Institute for Public Policy issued its report The Price of Stewardship: The Future of Arizona's State Parks. The report looked at the parks system and the agency that runs the parks, and examined what it would take to create a sustainable future.

One of the primary findings of Morrison Institute's report was that the park system had been starved by the Legislature, including what money it takes in, leaving it totally at the mercy of general fund appropriations.

In 2010 the general fund appropriation for parks was zero. That's not a typo. A task force appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer reviewed the report's listed options and made some recommendations – including a combination of local partnerships, increased concessionaire use and a surcharge on license plates that would give Arizona residents automatic access to the parks.

The task force and the Morrison Institute report also both recognized that there are inherently public functions connected to parks, such as educational programs, that deserve and require public financial support to survive.
Unfortunately, as the task force reviewed the "big picture" of state parks, Arizona's budget crisis deepened. As a result, task force recommendations went nowhere, lost in the tide of red ink that overwhelms our state.

In reacting to the Morrison Institute report and the task force recommendations, some commentators and lawmakers seized on the concept of "privatization" as a silver bullet for dealing with the park system, rather than as a component of a more comprehensive solution as was urged. 

A subsequent report, The Arizona State Park Privatization and Efficiency Plan, issued in December by the Arizona State Parks Foundation and conducted by a private consulting firm PROS Consulting, examines specifically the potential for privatization.

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As the principal author of the Morrison Institute report, I am impressed with the thoughtfulness and professionalism of the PROS report, a well-considered and realistic examination of what privatization can and cannot accomplish. The PROS report has a number of excellent recommendations, but to me the most important findings are:

  1. Even in the downturn, Arizona State Parks represent a tremendous return on investment. The PROS study estimates $223 million in economic benefit to the state in 2010 — down from $266 million in 2007, but still significant.
  2. There is a potential for much greater private-sector involvement in managing the parks. This involvement is primarily in the area of concessions, maintenance and recreational use. But there are areas where privatization doesn't work so well: major capital expenditures, educational programs and stewardship of fragile assets such as historic buildings or Kartchner Caverns. This means that it is impossible to escape some level of public financial support if we are to continue to have a park system.
  3. There is the potential for much greater use of local partnerships, reinforcing a finding of the State Parks Task Force. The recent crisis has given rise to a number of such partnerships.
  4. Private management of public assets requires serious oversight by the public. It does not mean you can escape all effort or cost.
  5. Finally, the single most important recommendation of the PROS report is that Arizona should give serious consideration to the creation of a quasi-governmental agency to manage the park system. This is similar to what the state is doing with economic development, through the creation of the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Both the Morrison Institute report and the PROS report highlight the real tragedy of our park system. Arizona State Parks has not been given a fair chance to prove itself. While we say we want it to operate more like an enterprise, since 2003, through various mechanisms, the Legislature has "swept" away portions – or all – of what Arizona State Parks has earned.

Again, Arizona State Parks presently gets no state dollars from the general fund.

No private operator could run a business if its operating income were taken away. It is unfair to Arizona State Parks to expect it to do so. Perhaps a quasi-governmental structure could restore sanity to this situation and save our parks.

One last point: The PROS report doesn't really deal with the myriad of functions Arizona State Parks operates that do not involve managing parks. These include extensive grant programs and the State Historic Preservation Office.

These activities have often confused the budget picture for the agency, since most would not be appropriate for a quasi-governmental agency. Consideration should be given to combining these with other severely crippled agencies such as the Arizona Historical Society and the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, as well as with even pieces of Game and Fish Department and the Office of Tourism.

Arizona was the last of the lower 48 states to create a state park system, but in 50 years it has built a remarkable collection of natural wonders, historic sites and recreational attractions that contributes greatly to the state's economy and quality of life.

Between these two reports, there is a wealth of data, ideas, recommendations and strategy for maintaining our state treasures. All that's needed is a commitment to stewarding Arizona's state park assets with a focused approach. Is anyone listening? Is anyone reading beyond the simplistic headline for privatization? For the sake of Arizona state parks and future generations, we must do our best to make sure that they do.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Local attorney, land-use expert and educator Grady Gammage Jr. is a senior research fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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