If you only caught the recent news headline, "Arizona state parks system would run better privately, study says," you might quickly surmise we should privatize state parks like we're doing with prisons.
Not so fast. The headline does not reflect the full content or context of the story. Nor does it reflect what the cited report or prior studies examining Arizona State Parks truly recommend when it comes to privatization.
In fall 2009, Morrison Institute for Pubic Policy issued The Price of Stewardship: The Future of Arizona's State Parks. The report looked at the parks system and the agency that runs the parks, and examined what it would take to create a sustainable future.
One of the primary findings was that the park system had been starved by the Legislature, including of what money parks take in, leaving it totally at the mercy of general fund appropriations.
In 2010 the general fund appropriation for parks was zero. That's not a typo.
A task force appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer reviewed the report's cost-saving and revenue-producing options, and made recommendations - including a combination of local partnerships, increased concessionaire use and a modest surcharge on license plates that would give Arizona residents automatic access to the parks.
Both the task force and Morrison Institute report recognized there are inherently public functions connected to parks, such as educational programs, that deserve and require public financial support to survive.
Unfortunately, as the task force reviewed the "big picture" of state parks, Arizona's budget crisis deepened. Its recommendations went nowhere, lost in the tide of red ink that overwhelms our state.
In reacting to the report and the task force recommendations, some commentators and lawmakers seized on the concept of "privatization" as the silver bullet for dealing with the park system, rather than as a component of a more comprehensive solution as was urged.
A subsequent report, The Arizona State Park Privatization and Efficiency Plan, issued in December by the Arizona State Parks Foundation and conducted by a private consulting firm PROS Consulting, examines specifically the potential for privatization. Some key points:
• Even in the downturn, Arizona State Parks represent a tremendous return on investment. The PROS study estimates $223 million in economic benefit to the state in 2010 - down from $266 million in 2007, but still significant.
• There is a potential for much greater private-sector involvement in managing the parks, primarily in the area of concessions, maintenance and recreational use. And there is potential for local partnerships, reinforcing a finding of the task force.
• Private management of public assets requires serious oversight by the public; privatization does not mean the state can escape all effort and cost.
• Arizona should give serious consideration to the creation of a quasi-governmental agency to manage the park system. This is similar to what the state is doing with economic development, through the creation of the Arizona Commerce Authority.
Both the Morrison Institute report and the PROS report highlight the real tragedy of our park system: Arizona State Parks has not been given a fair chance to prove itself. While we say we want it to operate more like an enterprise, since 2003, through various mechanisms, the Legislature has "swept" away portions - or all - of what Arizona State Parks has earned.
No private operator could run a business if its operating income were taken away. It is unfair to Arizona State Parks to expect it to do so. Perhaps a quasi-governmental structure could restore sanity to this equation and save our parks.
Between these two reports there is a wealth of data, ideas, recommendations and strategy for maintaining our state treasures. All that's needed is a commitment to stewarding Arizona's state park assets with a thoughtful - not over-simplistic - approach.
Local attorney, land-use expert and educator Grady Gammage Jr. is a senior research fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy. For more information, visit MorrisonInstitute.asu.edu.