The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recently conducted a detailed analysis of the Bush Administration’s management of our national parks. NPCA issued a report card reflecting its findings, giving the administration F’s in three categories: Preserving Park Resources, Visitor Experience and Park System Expansion.
On a brighter note, the Bush team won’t have to retake Administration & Management (D) or Park Funding (C+). The administration’s overall grade for its handling of the parks: D-. One can easily envision Bush, upon learning the news, slapping a high-five on Karl Rove and exclaiming, “Woo-hoo! We passed!”
The administration’s top grade may have been for Park Funding, but it is clearly a lack of funds that has led to the parks’ current state of disrepair. NPCA’s analyses of park finances “indicate that the backlog of unfunded maintenance needs exceeds $5 billion.” Mount Rainier National Park alone pegs its maintenance backlog at $90 million.
The Bush Administration has responded to this budget crisis by proposing to outsource up to 70 percent of the jobs in the parks to private, for-profit contractors. The administration hired consultants to study its privatization plan; to pay for the consultant fees, the budget for repairs in Western parks needed to be slashed by 28 percent. Privatization is indeed the magic elixir needed to save our national parks.
The Bush Administration is misguided, however, in its decision to privatize the National Park Service’s workforce. After all, employee compensation is a mere drop in the budget bucket. Consider that a full-time park ranger’s salary starts at $20,908; at that pay level, it would take 4,300 park rangers to total the budget shortfall at Mount Rainier.
The answer, of course, is to privatize the parks themselves. Our national parks hold tremendous profit potential, and it’s remarkable that, four score and seven years after Woodrow Wilson inked legislation creating the National Park Service, we’ve yet to tap into that potential. They’re often referred to as our “national treasures,” and the time has arrived for us to seek out private-public synergies that enable us to leverage some of those treasures into cold cash. The only alternative would be to return tax rates to levels not seen since the economically depressed Clinton years, an outrageous move that would be unacceptable to all Americans.
Let’s immediately tap into this cash cow by awarding naming rights to our national parks, monuments and memorials. Federal Express pays $7.5 million a year for the naming rights to FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. Are you telling me they wouldn’t jump at the chance to pay similar bucks for the naming rights to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state? I propose that we change the name to FedEx National Park, then put those FedEx delivery dollars right back into the park. Of course, we’ll have to accommodate FedEx’s demands for signage just above the timberline, but that’s a small price to pay for well-maintained trails and footbridges.
Other name changes can be more subtle. Lincoln Financial Group pays $6.7 million a year for the naming rights to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Would anyone notice a name tweak as minor as Lincoln Financial Memorial? Or the Statue of Liberty Mutual? Perhaps, but consider that $6.7 million would keep all that stone pristinely polished for many generations of visitors.
I’m sure that you, like me, are beginning to see the endless possibilities here. Arches National Park becomes Golden Arches National Park, with Happy Meals for the kids at each McRanger Station. Badlands National Park becomes AmericaOnlineLands. The park’s rugged trails can be hazardous, so visitors will be outfitted with PDAs that use AOL’s Instant Messenger service, enabling SOS messages to be sent to the park ranger. The ranger will respond with help quicker than you can say, “You’ve got mail.”
Herbert Hoover’s home in Iowa (yes, it really is part of the National Park System) becomes Martha Stewart Living Park. If convicted of insider trading and perjury, Martha will be forced to serve a seven-year sentence at the home, updating its drab interior with bright colors and offering visitors a free class on “Crafts with Corn.”
In a co-branding venture, Death Valley National Park becomes Evian-Six Flags National Park. Parched visitors will be able to purchase $10 bottles of Evian water, and a Six Flags water-themed amusement park will keep everyone beating the heat as they splash down a slide that ends at 280 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. The gates of the Arctic Park in Alaska become Halliburton Gates of the Gas Pipeline Park. Mammoth Cave becomes Microsoft Cave. Washington Monument becomes Viagra Monument. Cha-ching! Cha-ching! Cha-ching!
Yellowstone Park’s name remains the same, but let’s sell a couple hundred of the park’s 2.2 million acres to Wal-Mart. Sure, it would be an eyesore, but what camper would pass on the opportunity to make a hot-dog run to the Super Wal-Mart after a frustrating day of angling at the ol’ fishing hole.
The time has arrived for us to privatize our national parks. Some may consider such a proposal blasphemous; I contend that budgetary constraints make privatization essential. As Theodore Roosevelt — who placed 230,000,000 acres of land under public protection — said in 1907, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”
If he were alive today, Roosevelt would recognize that it takes money — the kind of money that only corporate America can provide — to protect and preserve hallowed grounds such as the Redwoods, Acadia, White Sands and the Grand Canyon. I implore the Bush Administration to arrive at the same conclusion.
Former Hoosier and NUVO contributor Matthew McClure is a freelance writer and proud bearer of a National Parks pass. He lives in Chicago.