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Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers

Commercialization is still relatively minimal in national parks, but worrying signs are there. Infrastructure improvements in Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, have been accomplished through funds raised by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which gets much of its funding through “business partners.” The list of businesses are mostly local and likely are motivated by a desire to maintain the park so as not to damage a tourism-dependent local economy. Such a motivation is not unreasonable, but if the underfunding of parks like Glacier gets more severe, the temptation of such private conservatories to reach out to bigger and more powerful national corporations is not likely to be avoided.

Giant corporations are likely to see “donations” to parks as a marketing ploy. Will we begin to see corporate logos in the parks? Outright corporate sponsorship of parks, in the manner of sports stadiums? Will the parks be expected to show a profit? This may sound outlandish, but we are talking about the United States here: A country in which governments ask for advertising dollars and borrow money rather than taxing corporations or the wealthy, and where pervasive corporate ideology insists that “private enterprise” runs everything better.

The idea that a park should generate a profit actually already exists. In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge Park along the waterfront near downtown Brooklyn actually is expected to be profitable. This is not a joke: A high-rise luxury condominium building is being built inside the park to pay for its maintenance.

When the government runs something for the common good, it doesn’t need to generate a profit as a private enterprise does — privatization, or creeping “public-private partnerships,” inevitably make a good or service more expensive. And a favorite tactic of right-wing ideologues is to starve a government service of funds so it doesn’t work well, then demand it be taken over by a corporation (and usually sold at a fire-sale price).

Whatever the reasons may be, the neglect of national parks has gone on for so long that the backlog of deferred maintenance is now $11.5 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the entire fiscal year 2015 budget for the National Park Service is about $2.6 billion.

This neglect is bipartisan — the maintenance backlog reached $5 billion under Bill Clinton and ballooned to $9 billion under George W. Bush. The Bush II/Cheney administration instructed park superintendents to use languagelike “service-level adjustments” instead of “budget cutbacks” in public. The National Park Service budget suffered more cutbacks under Barack Obama — from 2010 to 2015, the National Park Service budget was cut 12 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, including a reduction of more than 60 percent to the construction budget.

White House offers crumbs, Congress takes them away

The Obama administration is proposing an increase in parks funding for fiscal year 2016, in deference to the service’s 100th anniversary; an increase that would put nothing more than a small dent in the maintenance deficit. Unfortunately, this increase includes more money for a “private-public partnership” challenge — more corporate money. But Congress shows no sign of agreeing even to this modest funding increase. The House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees park operations proposes to provide $680 million less than what the Obama administration asks and the Senate’s equivalent subcommittee proposes only $50 million more than the House.

So are we going to see corporate branding in our national parks to make up for such losses of funding? The signs are not good. In a commentary, Jim Hightower notes that opponents of public services want to convert the parks into “corporate cash cows.” He writes:

“First in line was Coca-Cola. In 2007, the multibillion-dollar colossus became a ‘Proud Partner’ with Park Service by donating a mere $2.5 million (tax-deductible, meaning we taxpayers subsidized the deal) to the Park Service fundraising arm. In return, not only did Coke get exclusive rights to use park logos in its ads, but it was allowed to veto a Park Service plan to ban sales of bottled water in the Grand Canyon park. Disposable plastic bottles are that park’s biggest source of trash, but Coke owns Dasani, the top-selling water, so bye-bye, ban. Public outrage forced officials to reverse this crass move, but the Park Service’s integrity has yet to recover.”

Nor has The Coca-Cola Co. or other bottled-water companies such as Nestlé S.A. given up. On their behalf, Republicans have slipped an amendment into a budget bill that would prohibit the National Park Service frominstituting any prohibitions on bottled water, such as plans to provide spigots to re-fill bottles in place of buying new bottles. (No surprise there, as Nestlé’s chairman believes water should be a market commodity rather than a human right.)

Corporate sponsorship, however, is not the worst of it. Demands to allow more resource extraction on public lands, extraction that is a windfall for energy companies, continue to be insistent. Oil and gas royalties charged by the U.S. government are among the world’s lowest, unchanged since 1920, and are lower than any U.S. state charges for extraction on state-owned lands. Already, extraction sometimes comes right up the borders of parks. The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, notes that fracking is occurring right outside Glacier National Park. In its report, “National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing,” the association wrote:

“[N]ational parks in relatively undeveloped regions have also seen fracking arrive at their doorstep: From Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and their associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery that is capable of forcing millions of gallons of pressurized fluids into energy deposits hiding thousands of feet beneath the earth. … Visitors heading east from Glacier National Park encounter road signs urging caution against the poisonous gases that fracking operations emit.”

Fracking and fires

Having just spent a week and a half visiting the park, I fortunately didn’t see that — perhaps a function of the smoky haze that filled the air for weeks there. (This smoke was a result of northwestern Montana being downwind from dozens of wildfires throughout the Northwest U.S., augmented by several local fires. There was no denial of global warming in my earshot; several Northwest cities have endured their hottest summer on record, and Kalispell, the nearest major town to Glacier, has suffered through its driest summer on record.)

The association reports that fracking wells near Grand Teton National Park increased from about 500 in 2008 to 2,000 by 2012. Unfortunately, perhaps not willing to upset its corporate benefactors or fearful of offending conservatives, the association shrinks from demanding an end to such incursions, instead offering liberalism of the weak-tea variety:

“National parks are managed under a precautionary principle designed to err on the conservative side of any potentially negative impacts. The same principle should be applied to fracking activities on lands adjacent to our national parks. At the National Parks Conservation Association, our goal is to prevent an unexamined embrace of an oil and gas extraction method that can have far-reaching consequences for America’s most cherished landscapes. Now is the time to investigate the impacts of fracking on America’s national parks.”

As fracking involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into wells to create pressure to crack rocks, and results in polluted water supplies, human health problems, disruptions to agriculture and ruined roads from massive truck traffic — damage that adds up to billions of dollars in costs — more studies really aren’t necessary. Are such costs really worth whatever royalties might be collected?

The Good Nature Travel blog gives these grim results from energy extraction near two Western parks:

“Wyoming’s boom in natural gas and oil development is causing habitat fragmentation and the blocking of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near Grand Teton National Park. Concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of the park have been linked with regional ozone problems, with pollution levels high enough to cause respiratory problems. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, oil rigs can be seen from several parts of the park, and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire national park system.”

No parks, no problem

There is a corporate solution to this problem: Get rid of the national parks! I wish this were only a joke, but a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for the selling off of other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. And lest we chalk that up to the energy industry’s disdain for the environment, such ideas are being floated at the state level. In Kentucky, the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both advocate selling of some of Kentucky’s 49 state parks — this in a state that spends a paltry $83 million on maintaining those parks. In Wisconsin, a private contractor operates the reservation system for state parks, forcing fees there higher than neighboring states. Gannett Wisconsin Media reports that a $9.70 reservation fee is added to regular fees, and of that $9.70, all but $1 goes to the private company.

Perhaps as a concession to the neoliberal times, park advocates often present their arguments in terms of economic benefit rather than making the worthy case that parks are a social benefit and necessary havens for wildlife, and a human responsibility to the environment. We really shouldn’t need any further arguments. Nonetheless, the National Parks Conservation Association argues that every dollar invested in the National Park Service yields nearly 10 dollars in economic activity.

A study published in PLOS Biology goes further. The seven authors of the study, “Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas,” studied visitor records from more than 500 protected areas in 51 countries to determine the economic benefit of tourism to those areas. The authors conclude that $10 billion was spent maintaining these sites but more than $600 billion in economic activity was generated from them — a ratio of 60 dollars returned for each dollar spent.

Calculating such ratios is in reality more complicated, but the idea that parks generate income for local areas and thus — dare we say it? — are profitable in a broader surface economic calculation is hardly unreasonable. That has its own drawbacks, of course, as such areas are often overwhelmed by heavy traffic and environmental impact, associated costs that don’t appear to have been factored into the above calculations and which would therefore reduce those ratios. But, again, a civilized country ought to preserve wilderness and properly maintain parks as a value unto itself, outside any economic considerations.

That profit-and-loss calculations are made on something as basic to life as parks speaks volumes as to the brutality and mindless instrumentalism of capitalism.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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