Don’t privatize parks
There is something vaguely Shakespearean about the constantly unfolding drama embracing California’s state parks. Bits of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” come to mind, with perhaps back-back-back references from “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Tempest,” and “The Merchant of Venice.”
You can, of course, find elements of just about any human, social, political or spiritual condition threaded through virtually all of the Bard’s great works.
The same could be said about this summer of parkland discontent during which a dubious budgetary decision, to shutter 70 California parks in light of a $22 million shortfall, appeared both preposterous and duplicitous when $54 million of sequestered money was found stashed in State Parks accounts.
We seem to have passed through that tempest with the news that some of the stashed millions will be spent on deferred upkeep and repairs. That’s as it should be.
But in yet another Shakespearean twist, the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) appears to be bent on a bit of privatization mischief, at least if the concerns of state Sen. Noreen Evans have any credence.
As Evans exposits in the Op-Ed column at right, DPR has issued a request for proposals to private, for-profit companies to take over full operation of 21 state parks in the Delta and Central Valley.
This is troubling.
Consigning our parks to profit-driven management may sound wise, but as Shakespeare’s Moroccan prince in “The Merchant of Venice” discovers, when he chooses the wrong casket to win fair Portia’s hand, “all that glitters is not gold.”
There is a tendency in the course of human affairs for one extreme to rebound to another. It seems reasonable and fair to conclude that, for a very long time, California’s magnificent state parks have not been managed in a manner that promises to produce a maximum return on the public’s investment. Sometimes in some parks the revenue potential was simply ignored and business expertise was often absent in the decision-making process.
Drawing business further into the park management equation makes sense. Turning parks wholesale over to business doesn’t.
We are fortunate that in the Sonoma Valley, a consortium of interests, public and private, have collaborated on hybrid management models to keep open parks that were slated for closure. We have no illusions about the challenges ahead to make those parks self-sufficient, and self-sufficiency may require a greater financial commitment from the public than was previously required.
But if and when California returns to a state of fiscal sanity and political cooperation, we do not expect our parks to remain orphaned children. We can never forget that our public lands are held in public trust. Their asset values should never be for sale, even as the profit potential of those assets can sometimes be shared with private business.
The parks closure crisis clearly presents a positive opportunity for greater public involvement, investment and oversight. But in the long run, whatever role private, nonprofit and for-profit organizations continue to play in parks management, we don’t think privatizing the system is an appropriate model.
– David Bolling