Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Privatising California's Parks?

Among the state parks which are being forced to close this year are Castle Crags State Park, not far from Dunsmuir in northern California’s Siskiyou County, and Shasta State Historic Park, which lies just a few minutes’ drive from Redding, the largest city in northern California.  Redding’s paper, The Record Searchlight, ran an editorial in January on the plight of State Parks, seventy of which are being closed down because representatives of the state Republican Party in the Assembly and Senate took some kind of blood oath that disallows them from voting for any increase in revenue under any circumstances.

The Searchlight reported on conversations underway that would see private concessionaires stepping into the breach left by a state government plagued by Minority Rule, in which Republicans who occupy around 35% of the legislature call all of the shots regarding finance without bearing any of the responsibility for the damage their actions wreak on State Parks, social services, public schools, Community Colleges, the California State University and the University of California.

The Searchlight, “bucking liberals”, approves of the privatisation in principle, and has harsh words for those who oppose it: “liberal Democrats and unions”.  Their opposition, the Searchlight claims, is nothing more than “their ideology talking”.  Unfortunately, in its eagerness to caricature and attack opponents of privatisation, the paper chose not to explore the shape that this privatisation might take.  Would it simply be a question of private concessionaires?  Would the Parks become a ‘for-profit’ institution?  How permanent would privatisation be?  Would the privatisation of the eleven parks that the Searchlight discusses encourage further disinvestment—that is, further irresponsibility—on the part of the state?  What would privatisation mean for ease and affordability of access?  Would the Republican-sponsored bill of last year or the kind of legislation that the Searchlight supports open the door to private concessionaires purchasing the parks? 

In other word, a whole host of questions need to be answered before we start tinkering with the relationship between the responsibilities of state government, the management of public lands, and the rights of California’s citizens.

The editorial owns that there might be risks in privatisation, but says that “the alternative for these 11 parks is closure—followed by the inevitable weeds and rot and inertia that makes reopening all the harder”.  Well, closure is certainly one alternative.  But there’s another one, the exploration of which would have required an altogether more thoughtful and gutsy line of logic from the Searchlight: tackle disinvestment by the state.  Because the Searchlight may enjoy making snarky remarks about the ideology of “liberal Democrats and unions”, but it hasn’t managed to work out that the plight of our parks is the result of the implementation of some other party’s ideology.

Disinvestment from our state Parks, like our universities and now, our schools, is driven by a minority party that only survives as a viable political entity because of the considerable backing it gets from wealthy, corporate interests that have increasingly shown themselves to be out of step with Californians’ values (in a sign that even these interests might believe that the Republican Party is out of control, some business interests are backing plans to generate new revenue for the state, a sign that soon, the economic fundamentalists who run the Republican Party might find themselves all alone on the deck of a swiftly sinking ship).  The Republicans’ undemocratic veto power over questions of revenue and finance means that Californians have been deprived of the opportunity to have a conversation about what we want our state to look like; about what the responsibilities of state government are to our citizens; about how or whether we value public spaces like parks, institutions like universities, and endeavours like the education of our children.  Instead, peremptorily and sans preamble, our Governors and our legislators have been forced to engage in one frantic, ill-thought out round of cuts after another (just how ill-thought out becomes clear now that some are claiming that the closure of parks might actually be more expensive than keeping them open).

The argument for the privatisation of parks shows the hollowness of the anti-tax argument of the economic fundamentalist who run the Republican Party these days.  They are fond of claiming that their efforts are in the service of saving people money, of lifting some back-crushing financial obligation from the shoulders of citizens, hence their readiness to forsake the State Parks towards which all Californians chip in through their tax dollars (it should be noted that the cost of meeting this year’s shortfall in the Park’s budget would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5.00 to each Californian—not particularly oppressive).

But in the privatised vision of State Parks which threatens to emerge from the wreckage that Republicans intend to make of our public sector, it is still California taxpayers who will pay for their upkeep.  Because taxpayers will be paying the entry fees, and for service fees.  Very likely, those who choose to enter the parks will pay more.  And there are those who say that this is correct: “Why should I pay for a park that I’ll never go to?” 

And according to the remorseless logic of the ‘market’, instead of Parks being preserved for all Californians equally, they will be instead marketed towards those who can pay fees set not by public responsibility, but by the need to turn a profit.  So Parks will become something that you can access if you can afford them.  Just as medical services, in the Republicans’ fantasy market world, are only for those who can afford them (because that’s what letting private interest set the price ultimately means).  And our colleges and universities are slowly being forced into this same mould: you can get a world-class education...if you can afford it.

This is one of the two reasons why people oppose the precipitate privatisation of state parks.  Because it would start us down a slippery slope.  It encourages a selfish line of thinking, and trashes the idea that it isn’t just government that has obligations to the people it represents; people have obligations to one another.  It creates inequitable access, and suggests that there is nothing of universal value about the maintenance of open spaces.1

But the second reason why I think many people oppose privatisation does have something to do with government.  It has something to do with keeping it honest and holding it to account.  Because the mission of the California State Parks is a commendable one: “To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation”. 

I don’t see the spectre of “Big Government” looming in the California State Parks, which is what the state Republican Party would like to suggest.  I see government at its best and most altruistic.  And the privatisation of the parks would see an abandonment of that mission and an abdication of that responsibility.  We should be wary of casual measures—like the privatisation of some of our State Parks—which would erode the links between citizens and their ostensibly-accountable governments.


1 The Human Development Index, used by the authors of A Portrait of California, gives qualitative support to the idea that access to a safe place with clean air where people can exercise and children can play actually enhances quality of life (and incidentally lowers medical costs).


  1. Jeff,

    Our occasional political scrapping aside, I'll just point out that our editorial column has repeatedly advocated for a more compromising attitude toward reasonable tax increase by the Republicans, and enthusiastically advocated for the recent (but failed) initiative that would have raised car-registration taxes to give the parks lift. We also very much applaud the various nonprofits that are working to keep parks open with local backers.

    There's a time for discussion of first principles. There's also a time to look at what can be done today.

    1. Bruce,
      Thanks for your comments and thoughts. I'll admit that in my frustration I caricatured the Searchlight's editorial stance, for which apologies. There was a great 'Forum' conversation some months back on an initiative to allow non-profits to operate State Parks...worth a listen:
      My worry is that it never seems to be time for a discussion of first principles, and in hastily taking action we could cause lasting damage (to state parks, the state's social net, its colleges and universities). Based on what I see in California today, I've little doubt that when I'm my parents age we'll still not have sat down to initiate the political reform that would lead to the prioritisation of means over ends...