One of the dominant and oft-repeated arguments against agriculture in a national park is that it is a commercial venture and private commerce should not be allowed to flourish in national parks. It might surprise the folks who proffer this argument that there are today more than 500 private businesses operating inside America’s national parks and seashores, many of them chains with multiple outlets scattered about the park system. Together they gross over $1 billion a year and employ 25,000 people.

Included in the long list of private concessions are bath houses, cruise lines, hotels, marinas, outfitters, parking facilities, service stations and—perhaps the most ecologically destructive of them all—golf courses. These booming enterprises are linked together by blacktop highways that host millions of fossil fuel-burning cars, trucks, snow mobiles and motorcycles, and where thousands of animals, some of them endangered species, become roadkill. Many highway 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 and 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 national park parking lot, all offered to the public by private concessionaires cultivated 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 a 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 “…to 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 the National Park Service decides to limit or cut back the number of private concessions in the parks they manage (a worthy subject for debate), why not begin by expelling or dismantling the golf courses, fancy lodges, snow mobile rent shops, cruise ship ports 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, jets skis in park waters, is a good idea. Thanks to a successful lawsuit filed by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin in 2000, jet skis are prohibited from entering any of the water within or adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore. The suit was filed against the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, when it seemed clear to the E.A.C. that they would lose a suit against the National Park Service.

Author and investigative journalist Mark Dowie lives on the outskirts of Willow Point, on the western shore of Tomales Bay.