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Running Yellowstone more like a business

Approaching its 2016 centennial, the National Park Service faces many challenges. As a first step toward finding creative policy solutions, PERC recently hosted a national parks workshop where Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk suggested visitors should cover more of the park’s costs.

The latest in a series of PERC workshops on Property Rights, Markets, and the Environment, last week’s event brought together parks and public lands scholars to consider the past, present, and future of national parks with an emphasis on the role of private enterprise.

Environmental historian and author of National Parks: The American Experience, Al Runte kicked things off with a narrative account of the formation of the National Park Service. Runte examined the role of the railroads which underwrote the first parks’ designations to lure passengers, as well as the rise of the agency’s charismatic first leader, Stephen Mather.

PERC’s Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill provided an economic history of national parks, pointing out the importance of the entrepreneurs who recognized the region would be more valuable for visitors enjoying the natural wonders than for commercial logging, mining, grazing, or other commodity production.
University of Maryland Professor Robert Nelson, drawing lessons from the public education system and charter schools, explored a new – and more experimental – management approach to find the best solution for each of the national parks.

After comparing national park management with state park management, confronting the difficulties of changing policies within the National Park Service system, and considering the dynamic ecology of people and landscapes, the assembled scholars boarded a bus to Yellowstone to hear from park superintendent Dan Wenk.

Writing in the Idaho Statesman, Rocky Barker explained Wenk’s ideas for running Yellowstone more like a business. Gearing up for the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, Wenk wants to provide a great experience to visitors and “isn’t afraid to ask people to spend more to meet the $100 million it takes to support the park’s 800 employees and keep it open year-round.” Raising park entrance fees can be a controversial topic, but his goal is to make the park more self-sufficient in a down economy. “When Congress has to cut park budgets, Wenk said, it often wields a ‘chain saw, not a scalpel.’”

The need to fine tune the policy decisions affecting national parks is the very reason PERC is gathering ecologists, resource economists, and park administrators to share ideas. As the 2016 National Park Service centennial approaches, stay tuned for more research and scholarship from PERC’s network of scholars. If you’re not on our mailing list, join now to receive updates.

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