These and other similar questions were discussed at a recent legislative hearing (see here and here), as a follow-up to an audit of the state park system in January. A major portion of the hearing was devoted to discussing what it would mean for state parks if the system lost $2.7 million from the state (last year’s park budget was $6.7 million, but $2.7 million of that was temporary, “one-time” money).
It became apparent during the hearing that several changes could improve the financial standing of state parks, but government rules and regulations keep those changes from happening. For instance, one official from the Utah Department of Natural Resources asked for “flexibility” from the Legislature in how the department charges fees so it could charge more on high-use weekends or holidays, like a hotel would. In another example, a local official whose county includes two state parks explained that he has looked into letting local food vendors do business at the state parks but has “been stymied by bureaucratic red tape.”
Granting state parks flexibility in these limited circumstances is a good idea, but why stop there? If the Legislature is really interested in encouraging cost-saving flexibility by allowing for innovation in state park management, it should consider opening up park management to any group or individual with a sound plan to save the state money by managing a state park.
The Legislature could do this by creating a process in which a nonprofit organization (e.g., an environmental or recreational group), a for-profit business, a city or county, an individual entrepreneur, or even a state agency could submit a proposal to run one or several of Utah’s state parks. The proposal would have to lay out the organization’s plan for running the park (user fees, staffing, etc.), what laws and/or regulations need to be changed to implement the plan, and what amount of tax money, if any, the organization would need from the state. Additional minimal requirements for each proposal would be an explanation of how the organization would: (1) protect the public safety of park users, (2) act as proper stewards over park environments, and (3) save money compared with how the park(s) under consideration are currently run. Each state park would be subject to regular, and occasionally random, inspections by state officials to ensure that the organization is fulfilling its proposed management plan and not shirking its responsibilities.
Such a process, or a similar one, would truly incentivize innovative cost savings in how state parks are managed. Not only would it begin to tap into the innovative power of the private sector, but it would also encourage the government to think outside the box in finding out how government employees would manage state parks if they could completely rewrite the rules.
Ideally, it could even encourage seemingly opposing groups (such as environmental and recreational nonprofits) to come together privately and work out a proposal for how to manage a park in a way that allows both public access and responsible environmental stewardship. As Utah’s governor, environmentalists and natural resource producers have shown on several occasions (see here and here) in recent years, such compromise toward conservative environmentalism is indeed possible.
Of course, this process may not be the solution for every state park that is losing money. But it should help with the “low-hanging fruit” so that lawmakers and state officials can focus their time and efforts on the state parks that create the most severe cost problems.