Commerce is a central purpose in parks


One of the dominant and oft-repeated arguments against having an oyster farm in a national park is that it is a commercial venture and that private commerce should not be allowed to flourish in national parks. It might surprise the folks who proffer this argument to know that there are today more than 500 separate private businesses operating inside America’s 388 national parks, many of them chains with multiple outlets scattered about park lands. Together they gross over a billion dollars annually and employ 25,000 people. And many produce carbon footprints far larger than that of an oyster farm.

Included in the long list of private concessions in national parks are cruise lines, hotels, bath houses, marinas, outfitters, parking facilities, service stations and—perhaps the most ecologically destructive of them all—golf courses. These booming enterprises are all linked together by blacktop highways that host millions of fossil fuel-burning cars, trucks, snow mobiles and motorcycles and turn thousands of animals, some of them endangered species, into roadkill. Many victims are drawn to the roads by tasty vegetation planted on median strips or rotting food tossed by the wayside. Grizzly bear deaths from vehicle collisions in Yellowstone National Park alone have doubled since 2000. 

It really has become quite difficult for humans or wildlife to find true peace or a semblance of wilderness in an American national park. But a good meal, comfortable bed, movie, sleigh ride, souvenir teddy bear, coffee table book or fine bottle of wine are never far from a parking lot, all offered to the public by private concessionaires attracted by the park service’s active and expanding Commercial Services Program.

“By welcoming the private sector as a partner in park operations, the National Park Service broadens the economic base of the region in general and the communities surrounding the parks in particular.” That’s one stated purpose of our national parks. It seems a bit inconsistent with the original purpose, that being “ conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” 

If commerce is to continue to be a central purpose of our national parks (a good topic for debate), why not include healthy food production as one of the welcomed concessions in the mix? If, on the other hand, the park service decides to limit or cut back the number of private concessions in the parks they manage, why not begin by expelling or dismantling the golf courses, fancy lodges, snow mobile rent shops, cruise ships and marinas, particularly those that allow the use and rental of jet skis? The park service is currently spending $400,000 to study whether that last suggestion is a good move.


Mark Dowie lives, writes and swims off Willow Point.