Dear federal government: Do less.

Question: Why is this even remotely necessary? From the Billings Gazette over in Montana:

For Steve Galletta, the shutdown is threatening to cost him $10,000 in business just this weekend. That’s because the National Park Service has barred access to two fishing access sites on the upper reaches of the internationally renowned Bighorn River, a trout fishing mecca… where the government shutdown Tuesday took the form of 8-foot long concrete barriers that blocked access. …

“They closed something down that they never monitored all year long,” said Rick Law at the Bighorn Trout Shop.

He said the nearby Park Service contact station, where anglers pay a fee to launch their boats at the federal sites, had been empty all summer and he never saw a Park Service employee picking up trash or even enforcing the parking rules.

Answer: It isn’t.

First of all, making a particular point of barring access to federal lands is a great way to really spread the visibility and inconvenience of the government shutdown across the country from its epicenter in Washington, D.C., if that’s your game — and this definitely sounds like a first-class case of the feds going out of their way for a little “Washington Monument strategy“-ism, as Jonathan Adler notes at the the Property and Environment Research Center:

Bryan Preston reports that the federal government is ordering private contractors to close campgrounds and the like on federal lands even where such properties do not rely upon federal funds to operate. Indeed, in many cases, these properties generate revenue for the federal government. According to Preston’s report, similar closures were not ordered during prior shutdowns, so they would not seem to be required. …

The fact that some facilities are being closed now when they were not closed during prior shutdowns suggests these are discretionary choices.

Secondly, while Obama’s Department of Interior is clearly pulling out all the stops here, there are also clearly cases in which the government is shutting down lands that do rely on federal funds to operate — and frequently, this is entirely unnecessary.

Big-government progressives and self-proclaimed environmentalists too often tend to support the notion that the management of our many and diverse natural treasures is best left to the auspices of the federal government (which owns about one-third of the surface area of the United States, by the way). In reality, however, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, political uncertainties, regulatory hurdles, and incessant funding shortfalls you regularly find plaguing other government operations regularly translate into environmental degradation when applied the stewardship of our national parks.

The good news is, there are other options for both the recreational funding and ecological management of our great outdoors than top-down, improficient federal control. Here’s some testimony provided to Congress in July from Shawn Regan, another PERC fellow, on that front:

Congress should also look to state parks for innovative management strategies. State parks receive 700 million visits each year, more than twice as many visits as the National Park Service but on less than 20 percent of the acreage. Similar to the NPS, most state parks rely on appropriations and user fees for funding. When state budgets are tight, state parks are among the first to be cut. To address these funding challenges, some states have entered into creative public-private partnerships that improve visitor service, reduce management costs, and keep parks open, often with no reliance on government appropriations. Congress should explore similar partnerships for national park management. …

Congress should encourage similar public-private partnerships for national parks. Contrary to one common misconception, such partnerships with private companies will not result in the construction of a McDonalds next to Old Faithful or luxury condos overlooking the Grand Canyon. Under the terms of the operating contract, private park operators cannot change fees, facilities, or impact the natural resources within a park without the approval of the public agency. Private park operators must manage within public agency’s mission. While the NPS currently uses private concessionaires for many in-park operations, Congress should encourage more public-private partnerships for national park management across the agency, building on the success of companies like Recreation Resource Management.

This is some great information for any self-proclaimed conservationist to dig into, and I’d encourage you to read on for specific examples of the successes of the semi-privatization strategy (including the privately-run and revenue-generating parks that the Obama administration is currently ordering to close their gates) as well as still more ideas for consistent and efficient stewardship of our parks. Bullet-points version:

-Local managers know better than Congress how to address their maintenance and operational needs.

-Overreliance on congressional appropriations contributes to maintenance backlogs and causes park managers to respond to political forces rather than park users.

-Congress should continue to allow the National Park Service to charge recreation fees and retain most of the revenue onsite to reinvest in infrastructure and operations.

-The federal government should stop acquiring new land and use revenues from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the maintenance and operation of existing federal lands.

-Congress should look to state parks for innovative management strategies such as public-private partnerships that can improve park operations and reduce funding needs.

If there are any lessons we can glean from the current shutdown, one of them is certainly that the federal government simply does too much stuff — and micromanaging the American landscape does not need to be one of them.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on March 24, 2023