DUE to budget challenges, California officials plan to privatize six state parks this July. That's a small fraction of the 278 parks in the Golden State, but it represents a significant philosophical change — one that should give local policymakers reason to rethink Oklahoma's approach to park management.
Oklahoma has 35 state parks, down from 42. In 2011, the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation announced plans to close or transfer operation of seven parks that were, on average, only 34 percent self-sufficient. Based on reaction at the time, you would have thought the tourism department was eliminating the entire park system.
That outcry proved unwarranted as all seven of the parks were taken over by local governments, including some American Indian tribes. Today, those visiting the parks likely can't tell the difference and the state saved around $500,000 annually. That's a half-million dollars that can now be used for teacher salaries, bridge repair, public safety or other important needs.
California's example shows the state could take things a step further by privatizing park operations. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, has recommended that the state follow the lead of the U.S. Forestry Service and lease operation of state parks, as well as institute park entrance fees. The OCPA estimates $1.4 million could be saved annually.
Former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, endorsed similar changes in his fiscal year 2006 budget. Henry's plan called for leasing five state golf courses to private management and development.
In Oklahoma, public parks and golf courses are often subpar, and sometimes worse. Privatization of operations could result in improved amenities without draining limited tax dollars away from schools, roads or law enforcement.
Because Oklahoma used federal money to build some parks, associated restrictions require the state to retain the parks in perpetuity. However, that issue can be avoided through long-term management leases.
To make park administration attractive to private operators, contracts would have to cover multiple locations, ensuring a vendor wouldn't go broke if one park fares poorly. That practice is being employed by both California and the forestry service.
A multipark contract would also avoid the problems seen when Pointe Vista sought to build a private lodge at Lake Texoma and in a different effort to build a private lodge at Lake Murray. In both cases, those developers had all their eggs in one basket that also required dramatic redevelopment investment.
We doubt most Oklahomans care who operates a park. Families are more concerned with having clean, safe facilities in a well-managed environment at reasonable prices.
Oklahoma parks don't cost much to use today, but you often get what you pay for. Privatization might involve some fees, but also result in a better product. That's a trade-off we think most families would accept, especially if it frees up state funds for education, transportation and other core needs.
If the liberal oasis of California can apply a free-market approach to park management, why not Oklahoma?