Another Perspective

Privatize the National Park Service

No more Obama shutdowns ever again.

By 10.11.13

Send to Kindle

The behavior of the National Park Service during President Obama’s shutdown campaign has been shocking. As has been widely reported, Park Service employees have been told to make life as uncomfortable as possible for people, and have flourished in that endeavor. They have acted crudely and unprofessionally as a partisan and ideological arm of the White House and its propaganda campaign.

If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about (that would exclude American Spectator readers), then you listen only to NPR, watch only MSNBC, and read only the New York Times. Just click Google and start searching. There are frightening first-person accounts everywhere. Among the worst examples was a case innocently covered by a small Massachusetts newspaper that reported on a group of tourists traveling to Yellowstone National Park. The tourists, by no means a bunch of Tea Partiers, described the Park Service as “Gestapo”-like in its tactics.

That, of course, is an exaggeration. But the mere fact that a group of apolitical citizens would invoke such hyperbole to describe how they were treated really says something.

The Weekly Standard, a conservative source not given to hyperbole, argues in an editorial that the Park Service’s conduct “might be the biggest scandal of the Obama administration.” That’s no small claim for an administration plagued by scandals ranging from Benghazi to the eye-opening overreach of the IRS, the NSA, and (among others) the HHS mandate. The Standard rattled off examples of abuses during the shutdown, highlighting the most egregious of them all, the shameless scene at the World War II Memorial:

People first noticed what the NPS was up to when the World War II Memorial on the National Mall was “closed.” Just to be clear, the memorial is an open plaza. There is nothing to operate. Sometimes there might be a ranger standing around. But he’s not collecting tickets or opening gates. Putting up barricades and posting guards to “close” the World War II Memorial takes more resources and manpower than “keeping it open.”

No question. What happened at the World War II Memorial was pure political exploitation. As I wrote here earlier this week, for the propaganda artist, the spectacle of elderly, heartbroken, wheelchair-bound vets voyaging thousands of miles to remember their fallen brothers, maybe for a final earthly time, only to be denied by cruel, intransigent Republicans, was apparently too lovely to pass up. What great political theater! The propaganda points for the White House and its lieutenants must have been irresistible.

One can’t help notice the irony of a White House that can’t build a border fence but in mere hours can barricade the World War II Memorial and seemingly every other historic site in the nation.

Indeed, as the Standard noted, the barricading of the World War II Memorial was “just the start of the Park Service’s partisan assault on the citizenry.” It noted other historical sites that are privately owned and operated, where “the Park Service doesn’t actually do anything.” Nonetheless, the Park Service mustered the resources to deploy officers to forcibly remove volunteer workers and visitors. As the Standard put it, the Park Service “is now in the business of forcing parks they don’t administer to close…. It’s one thing for politicians to play shutdown theater. It’s another thing entirely for a civil bureaucracy entrusted with the privilege of caring for our national heritage to wage war against the citizenry on behalf of a political party. This is how deep the politicization of Barack Obama’s administration goes.”

This is Obama’s shutdown campaign, pure and simple -- akin to the kind of crass political campaigns the American far left has engaged in for decades. This time, sadly, federal employees have been conscripted in the cause; the National Park Service is serving as an army of agents in the campaign. Not unlike the IRS, NPS agents are abusing their powers. They are being tasked as a political/ideological arm of the state. This is precisely not what civil servants are to be.

As a personal sidenote, the National Park Service falls under the Department of Interior, once run by my late friend Bill Clark, whose biography I wrote. A rancher and cowboy, Clark left Reagan’s National Security Council to run the Department of Interior in 1984. He had great respect for the department, its mission, and its employees. Clark died in August. We talked constantly. He was depressed at the country’s direction under Obama. If he had seen his former Interior employees enlisted and behaving like this, he would have been despondent. I’m thankful this happened after his death.

And so, my reaction to this egregious behavior by the National Park Service is one word: privatize. Privatize. Privatize. Privatize.

I’m not talking about privatizing the parks themselves, a suggestion others have raised. In the 1990s, I specialized in privatization, writing reports for state and local think-tanks, particularly the excellent Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. I quickly learned one of the most crucial things about privatization that most people don’t understand: privatization frequently involves not ownership but operation. It’s often wiser to privatize not ownership but operation. (Roads are an example. Let the government own the roads, but their maintenance should be contracted.) That’s particularly true when government employees operating a service became unionized, entrenched, bloated, and over-extended. And that’s precisely what we should now consider with the National Park Service. We should privatize not the parks but the service that operates, manages, administers them.

The beauty of privatizing management rather than ownership is that ownership is permanent but management is not. This means that if one management group doesn’t perform up to expectations, a new one can be hired. The hiring process should always be regularly competitively contracted. This “competitive bidding” process keeps the current management group on its toes and accountable. If it performs badly, it can be fired and replaced -- unlike the current group of government employees running the National Park Service, which is a protected class with a monopoly on its service.

Let’s privatize the National Park Service.

This recommendation will anger NPS employees. Well, for that, they can thank White House schemers for overplaying their heavy hand and unwittingly shedding ominous light on the abusive possibilities of this agency. That’s not a sentiment that the president and allies intended to foster when they began agitating and orchestrating their shutdown campaign. Rather than convincing us of the alleged evils of congressional Republicans, they’ve unveiled the roguish tendencies of some federal employees who blindly follow orders. Let’s respond by taking power away from those employees, so this cannot happen again. Easily maneuvered into providing propaganda for a president or party, these NPS workers have proven themselves unworthy of the mission entrusted to them. They are the embodiment of the dangers of unaccountable, big government.

Let’s respond by privatizing the National Park Service.

Photo: UPI

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.