Friday, September 25, 2009

America's Best Idea: Privatize National Parks

Is Ken Burns, the brilliant documentary maker, a secret propagandist for socialism? In a piece titled "Socialized Nature," TIME magazine writer James Poniewozick claims that Burns' new PBS series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, "makes a simple case for an idea that is wildly controversial in the year of the tea party: That we need government to do things the private sector can't or won't."

Warming to his theme, Mr. Poniewozick continues:

The national parks — and 'The National Parks' — are based on ideas that are classically, if not radically, communitarian: That the free market doesn't always act in the public interest. That it's good that every American shares ownership of and responsibility for the most exclusive properties in the country. And that it is right for people — through government — to protect them from business interests and even from the people themselves (like the early visitors who shot game and scratched their names on ancient rocks). A series on a public-TV network that calls a government program America's best idea? Has no one alerted Rush Limbaugh?

Indeed, Poniewozick is entirely correct in noting that few people oppose the idea of government-run national parks.

Well, I do. And I reject Poniewozick's premise entirely. Ah, I shoulda mentioned earlier that this is going to be a fairly controversial post.

National Parks are certainly a great idea. But I'd rather they were privatized (gasp!) and put into the hands of The Nature Conservancy or Audubon Society. Or a for-profit corporation.

Unfortunately, America's national parks are poorly managed -- the inevitable result of central planning.

A few damning examples:

* National Parks have a poor track record of preserving their ecosystems:
In Yellowstone, a decision to cull the wolf population in the park has triggered an ecosystem chain reaction that has decimated Apsen trees. (Read about it here.)

* The government officials in charge of the parks are prone to decision-making by lobby groups:
Earlier this summer, a page one story in The Los Angeles Times explained how the US government tried to kill off the gray wolf in SouthWest America at the behest of wildstock interests. Moreover, when the government attempted to reintroduce the gray wolf, now an endangered species, into the Gila National Forest, it botched the effort.

* Smokey Bear's worst enemy: The Forest Service:
Remember the catastrophic fire at Los Alamos in 2000 that burned 80 square miles of New Mexico including over 400 homes? Started by an arsonist? Nope. It was deliberately set by the Forest Service. In fact, they've started a good number of wildfires that quickly got out of control and wrecked havoc. It's all part of a policy called, ironically, "controlled burn."

As environmental economist Terry L. Anderson and Reed Watson opined in Forbes: "Decades of fire suppression by the Forest Service have disrupted natural fire cycles and turned many western forests into tinderboxes waiting to burn. Dense stands of spindly deadfall and underbrush now occupy land once characterized by open savannahs and large, widely spaced trees. One result is larger, more intense fires that burn the publicly owned forests to the ground. Indeed, by the Forest Service's own estimates, 90 to 200 million acres of federal forests are at high risk of burning in catastrophic fire events."

* National Parks are overrun by tourists:
Every year, there are more than 280 million visitors to America's national parks. Why? It's cheap. Just $25 for a car to enter Yellowstone, for example. Sure, you already pay for the national parks with your tax dollars and so, understandably, you may not like the idea of paying more. But the fact is that there's an overwhelming demand due to the low cost of entry.

As Manuel Lora points out in an essay titled, "If You Love Nature, Desocialize It," the great economist Ludwig von Mises showed economic calculation is impossible under socialism. Lora writes, "How much should people be charged to enter the park? Should they be charged at all? How many families or cars should be allowed per season? Or should they be allowed at all? These are all critical questions that end up being answered politically."

By contrast, entrepreneurs, using prices, can determine the balance of supply and demand. A private park owner would want to protect his resources and would better determine the balance between trampling tourists and park preservation.

* The parks are poorly maintained -- despite a staggering budget:
In their Forbes op-ed, Anderson and Watson point out: "Every year, U.S. taxpayers spend billions of dollars on public land management, but the way in which these funds are allocated--through the congressional budgeting process--ensures the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service respond to the will of politicians.

The result is what has been called "park barrel politics," which persists while the National Park Service maintains an estimated $9 billion backlog of construction and maintenance projects. Lest you think financial mismanagement is confined to the Park Service, consider that between 2006 and 2008 the Forest Service lost on average $3.58 billion each year. Similarly, the Government Accountability Office testified in Congress that in 2004 the BLM earned approximately $12 million in grazing revenues but spent $58 million implementing its grazing program."

The real reason why Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests was that he thought America would one day run out of timber. As Reason magazine points out, "To Roosevelt and his circle of progressive central planners, the solution to the impending national timber famine was a government program-national forests managed by a new federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service." Read the rest of the piece to learn how Federal timber sales turned out. Another reason of why these resources are best taken out of public hands.

National Parks are the ultimate example of "the tragedy of the commons." These parks are supposedly owned by each and everyone of us. But, as Fred L. Smith of The Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed out in an article I wrote on this very topic, "When everybody owns something, then nobody feels particularly responsible for it. Each of us hopes that others will take care of our common responsibilities."

Putting America's parks in the hands of private owners may just be the best idea of all.

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