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Putting Public Parks in Private Hands

The Christie administration says privatizing NJ’s parks can save millions. Critics counter that current lease arrangements are already costing the state money.

For $20, a family can choose its pick of campgrounds at Rock Creek Canyon high up in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, with the sites tucked away under a canopy of juniper, lodgepole pine and aspen trees. It was ranked among the Top 100 Family campgrounds last year, although you better beware of the black bears.

Rock Creek is one of 175 properties in 11 states operated under long-term concession agreements with state and federal agencies by Recreation Resource Management, a Phoenix-based company. It is not a novel arrangement. For many years, cash-strapped governments have been turning to the private sector to manage state- or federally owned parks and lands.

If a privatization task force appointed by Gov. Chris Christie gets its way, the same fate may await Liberty State Park, Island Beach State Park, Wharton State Forest and other jewels of New Jersey’s park system. The task force suggested turning concessions over to the private sector, a step that could save the state anywhere from $6 million to $8.2 million.

Bridging the Yearly Budget Gap

If done right, advocates say it would end the annual charade of threatened state park closings at the advent of summer vacation, as lawmakers struggle to bridge the yearly gap in the New Jersey state budget. The state system is currently run by state employees, but it is not unusual for private vendors to contract such amenities as boat rentals, marina operations and concession stands.

What the task force is proposing would be more sweeping than simply leasing concessions to private companies. In exchange for all gate and recreation fees, the concessionaire would fund operations and maintenance of the parks and pay the state back an annual lease fee, a system troubling to critics of the proposal.

“This is not like running a hot dog stand,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The danger is they manage the park to their own benefit, not necessarily what’s best for the public.”

For example, Tittel said a private company may decide to rent out Island Beach State Park to a private entity for an annual picnic rather than open it to the public because they could make a bigger profit by doing so.

Contractual Protection

Dick Zimmer, the former congressman who chaired the privatization task force, said such scenarios are unlikely given that the state would be able to write into the contract specific terms on what private companies can charge and language detailing how the nature and character of the park could not change.

Warren Meyer, president and CFO of Recreation Resource Management, agreed. “There’s nothing I could do to change public access at a facility without the public authority’s permission,” said Meyer, a Princeton graduate who added New Jersey has many attractions which could very well be run by a private company.

Operationally, there is no way state or federal agencies can manage the system for less than a private company, Meyer said. In California state parks run by the public authority, camping fees can run up to $30 a day, he noted. None of his facilities charge near that, he said.

Assembling a Package of Parks

If the state decides to go ahead with privatizing the parks, Zimmer suggested the state package several systems together and bid it out to the private sector. Some, such as Liberty State Park, the most visited state park in the nation, would be highly profitable while others may lose money, but overall the private company would make a profit, he said.

But Tittel suggested the state’s past history with leasing public lands raise serious doubts about whether a more expansive privatization effort would succeed. He pointed to a recent Office of Legislative Services audit that found the state Department of Environmental Protection mismanaged many of the more than 200 lease agreements it had with private entities. Among other things, the audit found the agency failed to collect payments by which public lands and facilities were operated by the private sector.

Zimmer argued that pointed to a failure of the current system. He noted one of the recommendations of the task force was the state take steps to improve its procurement system across the board.

Others said the state, if it is going to turn over stewardship of public lands, should explore entering into partnerships with nonprofit groups that have a history of preserving and protecting natural resources.

“If you are going to explore for profit entities, you should also look at which nonprofits are active with many of these lands,’’ said Michael Catania, president of Conservation Resources, Inc. “They are mission-driven, not profit driven.’’

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