Rethinking Washington State Parks: How to Avoid Governor Inslee’s Plan to Close 60 State Parks

In his “Working Washington” report issued earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee proposes a range of new taxes to help increase funding for education and other state services, including Washington’s cash-strapped state parks system.[1] Without an additional $23.7 million in new funding, the governor warns that “up to 60 state parks could be closed year round or seasonally.”

The threat of closing five dozen state parks is yet another variation on the well-worn “Washington Monument Syndrome” tactic designed to threaten closure or disruption of popular amenities if tax increases are not approved.

Political tactics notwithstanding, Washington’s state parks system does indeed face significant funding challenges. General fund appropriations for parks have been on the decline for years, a predictable circumstance in a fiscal football game in which funding for major spending priorities like education, healthcare, public safety and public-sector retiree benefits increasingly crowds out funding for the “nice-to-have” amenities like state parks. The sooner that policymakers and citizens understand this basic trajectory is only going to intensify — and that new solutions are needed to sustain the “nice-to-have” items like state parks — the better.

Some in Washington have begun to realize this when it comes to parks. In recent years, the legislature pushed the Washington State Parks Commission to pursue financial self-sustainability, and to its credit, the agency has pursued a range of strategies that include staff reductions, an increasing reliance on user fees and non-recreational leases, and expanding revenue-generating assets within the parks themselves. While these actions have not solved the funding challenge, they have been useful steps to keep the parks system afloat.

Short-term infusions of funding along the lines proposed by the governor are not a sustainable financial strategy if the goal is to keep parks open and thriving for the long term. Washington, like many other states, is due for a major rethinking of the structure and operation of the parks system itself.

California faced a similar parks funding crisis. A report issued in March by the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) — a highly respected, independent and bipartisan state oversight agency in place for over 50 years — makes a compelling argument for top-to-bottom rethinking of how that state’s park system operates, and could offer insights for parks officials in Washington state.[2]

In its report prepared for California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature, LHC argues that “the current model of a highly centralized state-run park system is obsolete” and that California State Parks needs a new operating model. The report offers many recommendations on ways to reinvent state park management for the 21st century. One of the most important recommendations is to significantly expand the role of outside partners, including other governments, nonprofits, and for-profit recreation management companies, in the direct operation and management of state parks. Some brief quotes from the report highlight this point: 

  • “Individuals, non-profits, foundations and companies scrambled to find fixes to keep the 70 [California] parks open [that had been threatened with closure in 2012], if only temporarily. The outpouring of generosity, resourcefulness and ingenuity demonstrated that California’s parks have immense support, from individuals as well as national and regional park systems.... The agreements developed to allow outsiders to run or help run state parks also demonstrated that there is a range of operating alternatives as well.... Shared management initiatives with these partners are essential to the system’s future.” 
  • “The Governor and the Legislature should give the department the authority to try more alternative management approaches throughout the system, to tap the expertise of these partners and to share the risk that comes with innovation.” 
  • “In the new model, the department’s partners will come in many forms, as will partnership agreements. Some are volunteer associations whose focus is a single park. Others are small concessionaires that specialize in one area, whether maintenance or raft trips. Others are foundations with substantial resources and corporations with experience in running large operations in different states.”
     
  • “Based on its experience with joint operating agreements with the National Park Service and regional park services, the department, on a pilot basis, should solicit proposals for cooperative operating arrangements that bundle geographically proximate parks owned by different government entities for greater operating efficiencies. Consortiums making proposals may include as members state, national and regional park agencies, conservancies, trusts, volunteer associations and private concession companies. Consortiums may propose their own operating and staffing models, as long as they are consistent with the goals of natural and cultural resource preservation, public access and education.”[3]

In other words, the century-old, top-down model of state parks operated and managed by state parks agencies is not sustainable and needs to be replaced by an approach in which the parks agency sets the mission for the parks system and then serves as a coordinator to arrange the right blend of public and private sector operators on a park-by-park basis. 

Though it may be anathema to the preconceived visions held by some parks advocates, there is indeed a strong role for private-sector and non-profit operators in the state parks. For example, nonprofits played a major role in taking over operations of dozens of California state parks to help avoid closure amid 2012’s budget battles, and many municipal parks, zoos and aquariums, including New York City’s famed Central Park, have long been operated by nonprofit conservancies and “friends” groups. 

The for-profit parks operation is even more interesting and presents a significant opportunity for Washington state, as I detailed in a blog post at washingtonpolicy.org last August.[4] Most notably: 

While this may sound like a fantasy, it’s already happening all around Washington state. Private, for-profit recreation management companies currently operate over half of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) thousands of developed recreation areas (e.g., campgrounds, day use areas) nationwide under “whole-park” concession agreements. Washington, California, Colorado and Oregon each already have over 100 USFS parks and campgrounds currently operated by private concessionaires, with hundreds more spread out across other Western states. This USFS program has been in place for over 25 years, prompted originally by fiscal pressures on the agency decades ago that led it to embrace user fees and “whole park” concessions to keep its numerous recreation areas open and self-sustaining. Sound familiar? 

For a detailed analysis of the opportunity in the for-profit operation of state parks, as well as a debunking of common myths and misunderstandings surrounding it, readers should review the January 2013 policy study I co-authored on the subject on behalf of the Conservation Leadership Council.[5] 

In what should serve as a model for Washington, in 2012 California became the first state to turn over the operation of multiple state parks to private recreation management companies to rescue them from closure. The LHC report describes the initiative: 

During the 2012 closure crisis, the department invited new proposals and issued five-year contracts with private companies to operate entire state parks. … Under the contracts, American Land & Leisure of Orem, Utah, has begun operating three state recreation areas for the department: 336-acre Brannan Island in Sacramento County, 228-acre Turlock Lake with 26 miles of Stanislaus County shoreline, and 428-acre Woodson Bridge in Tehama County. American Land & Leisure operates 400 public and private campgrounds throughout the United States for the U.S. Forest Service, and others.... 

The department similarly issued a five-year contract to Templeton-based Parks Management Company to operate the 716-acre Limekiln State Park on the Big Sur coastline of Monterey County. Parks Management Company operates campgrounds, day use areas, marinas and RV resorts throughout California. Under the agreements, both companies provide minimum walk-around park security with options to call in the county sheriff’s department for assistance. Both also pay a percentage of their park revenues to the department, which uses the proceeds for maintenance and repairs of those individual parks.... 

Many of these agencies concluded years ago that contracting out appropriate parks to private operators is less expensive than having government provide the service. Concessionaires provide lower-cost operations models through more extensive use of seasonal staff, though the state has long relied on seasonal workers. The private firms generate revenues from gate fees and use them to make improvements that bring more visitors to parks. 

Longer-term concession contracts provide longer income streams and, with them, opportunities to improve park infrastructure, expand lodging alternatives and address deferred maintenance. At Siskiyou County’s McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, for example, Arizona-based Recreation Resource Management spent nearly $2 million to install 24 cabins in 2007 under a 20-year contract with California state parks. The long contract enables RRM to recoup its investment costs and returns the cabins – maintained according to a performance contract – to state ownership at the end. These kinds of private contracts increasingly represent a management option not only for the department, but for the non-profits and cooperating associations that have rescued and begun operating state parks proposed for closure in 2012. 

Public-private partnerships like these are going to be key to the future in Washington state. The problem is not that there’s not enough general tax money being spent on parks, as Gov. Inslee seems to imply in his proposal; the problem is a reliance on an antiquated, bureaucracy-centered governance and management structure, and this is a problem that one-shot infusions of tax dollars will never be able to solve. 

To keep state parks open and financially sustainable for the long term, Washington policymakers need to reinvent their system to accommodate parks operation that puts the right operators in the right place at the right time, regardless of whether or not they are state employees.


Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform at Reason Foundation based in Los Angeles, and an adjunct scholar with Washington Policy Center based in Seattle.




[1]              “Working Washington” 2013–15 budget priorities, Office of Governor Jay Inslee, March 28, 2013, at
www.ofm.wa.gov/budget13inslee/presspacket.pdf

[2]              “Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California’s State Park System,” Little Hoover Commission, March 2013, at www.lhc.ca.gov/studies/215/report215.html

[3]              Ibid. 

[4]              “Private Operation Could Help Keep Washington’s State Parks Moving toward Self-sufficiency,” by Leonary Gilroy, August 24, 2012, at www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog/post/private-operation-could-help-keep-washington%E2%80%99s-state-parks-moving-toward-self-sufficiency

[5]              “Parks 2.0: Operating State Parks Through Public-Private Partnerships,” by Leonary Gilroy, Harris Kenny and Julian Morris, Reason Foundation; January 2013, at www.leadingwithconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/CLC_III-Gilroy_Kenny_Morris_1.3.13.pdf.