Last fall, Mackinac Center for Public Policy Senior Environmental Policy Analyst Russ Harding published an article entitled "Privatization in Michigan State Parks," in which he recommended selling 14 of Michigan’s 97 parks. The response was dramatic. Over the course of the next six months Harding conducted scores of media interviews and provided legislative testimony on the subject. The Legislature responded by passing a state park anti-privatization law.
The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with Mr. Harding on recent park privatization discussions, state officials’ reaction to the idea and what the future of park privatization may hold.
MPR: What is the status of the parks privatization concept?
RH: There are two aspects. First, it is now harder to privatize state parks. After my article was released, state lawmakers introduced legislation that would require two-thirds approval by the state Legislature in order to sell state park property. This was not the type of response I had hoped for. There is some good news. Lawmakers have long been delegating too much power to agencies with little oversight. This new legislation has drawn attention to the bureaucracy instead of simply allowing agency officials to interpret statutes as they see fit.
MPR: When your article ran in MPR last year, did you expect the type of reaction you got from Lansing politicians?
RH: I wasn’t surprised by resistance to selling state park property. I was surprised by the speed and intensity of the opposition; opposition that led to quick passage of legislation restricting park property sales.
MPR: Why do you think legislators actually went in the opposite direction and made the sale of virtually any state park land more difficult than it was before you wrote the article?
RH: I suspect it was a political response. The Legislature is playing to populist notions of protecting the environment by ensuring state ownership of all land currently on the government rolls. It is a pretty safe place for legislators to go but it is not necessarily the best action for the future of the park system. Revenue generated from the sale of a handful of park properties could be invested in the remaining park infrastructure itself.
MPR: As former DNR parks director, can you shed some light on the inner-workings of the parks department? After all, the DNR itself is interested in shedding some park land.
RH: There has been an evolution on the thinking of park managers, due primarily to the fact that they no longer enjoy General Fund support. The revenues are now derived largely by dedicated funds and camping fees. When GF monies were flowing to parks at higher rates, there was less incentive to look for efficiencies, such as selling some property and reinvesting it in the remaining system. Now that parks have to earn more of the revenue that they use to operate, the managers have a greater incentive to look for innovative solutions.
MPR: If the state took your advice and sold the properties, what would you do with the proceeds?
RH: I would recommend reinvesting them in the state park system, but not in operational expenses. The money should be spent on infrastructure that would provide for greater customer service and operational efficiencies in the long run. For instance, there is an opportunity to cut energy costs at the state parks by installing solar powered energy for shower houses. It’s a good fit for state parks because they are primarily used in the summer. It’s more expensive up front but over time the savings will pay for that initial investment — especially in light of rising fuel costs. It’s also environmentally sound.
What our park system is suffering from is what the state of Michigan is suffering from. We have little vision for being able to adapt to a changing world. We keep talking about how great the park system is yet things are changing. Other states, for instance, have moved in certain selected parks to hire private, for-profit contractors to operate lodges. This is an example of how government can raise the productivity and popularity of their state park system. Lodges provide a camping-like experience, but with greater comforts. As the population ages, these will be more attractive to future park users.
I started the process of implementing this change and attempted to contract out janitorial services, but I was fought by many "camps" inside and outside of state government. Not only is there an inherent fear of change, there are narrowly focused special interest groups with an emotional investment in maintaining the status quo.