Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parks get short shrift (and myopic suggestions for management)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here, I'd like to add a small voice in support of parks, and explain, via a couple of poor ideas I've found in the media, some real threats faced by parks.

First, this op-ed in the High Country News really irked me.  Mr. Pace makes a good point about the need for the environmental community to provide Californians with bigger ideas, but he does it by trying to shoehorn the loss of Proposition 21 into his analysis. 

I worked a short stint in California State Parks, and I worked over four years in environmental advocacy at the California state level, and believe me, Mr. Pace's characterization of California State Parks as the environmentalists "pet agency" is simply wrong, and damaging. 

First, most state parks are historical sites.  Second, the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation has had to get its budget through the general fund, while environmental groups sought fees and fines to fund other agencies with a more direct environmental bent (like CARB, DFG, air pollution control districts, etc.)  If State Parks is a pet agency, it's the runt, sucking hind teat - and Californians sadly illustrated that notion last week.
Then, A few days back, I came upon this Environmental Economics post on National Park visitor fees by Professor Whitehead.  It's an interesting, short question about determining the most efficient visitor fee level for the National Parks.  Unfortunately, it also perfectly illustrates a couple of common misperceptions about park visitation and management.

First, national parks are not overcrowded.  Like Mr. Pace's mistake, Prof. Whitehead taps the notion of a few, iconic parks, ignoring the vast majority of the 392 park units, and ignoring the seasonality of visitation.  But, even during their peak visitor seasons, those iconic parks are not overcrowded.  Instead, their crowds occasionally need more efficient in-park management.

The reality is that park visitation has lagged in the past decade, and managers are rightly worried about this lag. 

You see, the mission of the National Park Service is twofold:  To preserve, for future generations, those places we've found to be important to our natural and cultural history, and to provide for the recreation and enjoyment of Americans at these places.  This, plus the truth of the NPS budget (that revenues don't come from visitor fees, but from the Federal Government), means that Professor Whitehead's simple view of parks fits the mistaken perception of the public, but it does not fit the real threats to parks, nor does it fit the mission of the National Park Service.

The professor assumes that parks are overcrowded, that entrance fees = budget revenues, and that park fees are the most efficient way to manage for crowds.  All three are mistaken.

Simply put, parks need visitors who love them.  Park managers understand that they need many visitors to all have a great time.  In California, state parks have come up against this reality, and they find themselves in a vicious circle.  They can pretend that their visitor fees pay their bills, and set entrance fees to optimize their revenues from fees, but in doing so they will alienate themselves from the constituency that really pays the bills - the California resident.  In a short time, they will lose popularity in the public's view, and will therefore lose their budget.  Park advocates and managers, therefore, rightly decided to take the idea of visitation and Californians' responsibility to our cultural and ecological heritage, directly to the People.  Sadly, that vicious circle had already taken its political toll.

Using visitor entrance fees to manage for crowding in park units can exacerbate that political reality.  If fees are raised to "manage" (i.e., discourage) crowds, crowds won't come.  If crowds don't come, parks won't get high priority in budget determinations. 

Higher visitor fees are the wrong way to manage for crowds.  Sadly, many economists can only talk in visitor fees, and therefore must make some seriously constraining assumptions when trying to "help".  Also sadly, many park systems are realizing that, among their problems, the fee structure has politically alienated them. 

I wish I had a suggestion for this dire problem many park systems now face.  If you have any, bring 'em.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Seems to me that parks are like wildlife - they benefit from having a vested constituency of consumers. Not that this solves the problem, but it's worth chewing on.

Josh said...

Amen, sister! Unfortunately, there's no better word right now than "consumers", because it hides the true relationships.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Wow, I thought Blogger's new spam filter worked better than that.

Josh said...

Yeah, Holly, that was pretty bad.