Robert Gehrke
August 28, 2010

The chairman of a board looking at the potential for privatizing state government functions would like to see Utah privatize a handful of state parks to see if they can be run more efficiently than they are now.

The Utah Privatization Policy Board, an advisory panel to the Legislature, has been exploring privatization for several months. But Randy Simmons, chairman of the board, said he would like to see a pilot project to see how private companies can manage six to eight state parks.

The state currently manages 43 parks, reservoirs, museums and golf courses. A handful are profitable, but many, particularly the museums, are not, Mike Styler, director of the Department of Natural Resources, told the panel Wednesday.

Parks receive about $31 million annually in operating funds from the state.

Simmons, former Providence mayor and head of the political science department at Utah State University, suggests putting money-makers and -losers together to find a balance.

The idea of park privatization was raised during this year’s legislative session, but no action was taken.

State Parks Director Mary Tullius said Utah has a bad track record with contracting for management of its parks.

She said about 25 years ago, a private contractor ran a campground at Willard Bay and “they literally ran it into the ground.” The managers built a water slide, but then let both that and the facilities deteriorate to the point that the state had to come in and invest millions of dollars to dismantle the slide and rebuild the campground.

Later, she said, the state hired a concessionaire to manage the Jordan River OHV Park, but “there were a lot of drugs and alcohol out there and again we had to terminate the contract. It was a costly venture for us.”

Echo Reservoir is currently run by a private company and, she said, “they don’t even allow people to camp there anymore because it’s so run down.” It is a public safety hazard with little law enforcement.

She said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has asked the state if it would run the park and the state declined unless the bureau would invest the money to fix the site.

“I guess I look at those different than she does,” Simmons said. “To me that looks like a complete failure on the parks side for not monitoring the contract. It’s a serious potential problem if you don’t design the contract right and then if you don’t monitor it.”

Utah County Commissioner Steve White, who is on the board, is generally a fan of privatization.

“I personally tried to get my colleagues to divest three parks” that Utah County owns, White said. “County government doesn’t have any business doing overnight camping sites. The [U.S.] Forest Service does overnight camping and they contract out to private providers.”

Simmons said he would like to hear from contractors and managers from other states that have experience with contracting to run parks.

“So far we’ve been talking about fairyland, and we need to talk seriously with [the experts],” he said. Among the companies Simmons hopes to hear from is Orem-based American Land & Leisure, which runs concessionary facilities on public lands in several states.

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Correction • A story in Thursday’s Tribune quoted Utah State Parks director Mary Tullius as stating that camping was no longer allowed at Echo Reservoir and paraphrasing a statement that it had become unsafe. In fact, camping is allowed at the reservoir. Officials who operate the campground also say there are no safety concerns with the area.

State parks cost about $31M per year

R Utah manages 43 parks, reservoirs, museums and golf courses. Those operations cost about $31 million annually and about 4.8 million people visited the parks in 2009. Privatization supporters believe contracting with private managers for some facilities would be a financial plus for taxpayers. Agency official says such experiments in the past have flopped.