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Originally published Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 8:21 PM

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The business of parks is leisure

The Legislature, in ordering the park system to run more like a business — essentially with product placement — misses the point of the founding of the parks system starting with the founding of Yellowstone in the late 1800s, which is to shield a few of the country's wild places from capitalism.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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When you reach the pinnacle of what must be this state's most primordial nature park, you also come face to face, unfortunately, with the future.

In Eastern Washington, between Spokane and Pullman, is one of my favorite state parks. It's called Steptoe Butte, and it's otherworldly. You drive about a thousand feet up above the plain to gawk at the rolling, green and gold silt dunes of the Palouse.

There's nothing else there — no camping, activities, concessions or crowds. It's a classic public park, preserved for no other reason than it's a take-your-breath-away natural wonder.

Except for one thing. At the top, right next to that 200-mile view, is a cluster of enormous cellphone and telecommunications towers.

Over the years the towers have proliferated, turning this remote spot into the most profitable park in the financially struggling state park system.

Steptoe Butte does not actually make money. But park officials say leases on the cell towers bring it the highest return compared to expenses of any of the state's 117 parks.

In public meetings this summer, they have been using Steptoe Butte as an example of what we may soon be seeing in more of our state parks.

More cell towers. Solar arrays. Gravel extraction. Restaurants or breweries. Corporate naming rights. Utility lines. Higher fees, as well as pay amusements such as privately run zip lines and adventure parks.

It's all because the park system has been ordered to run more like a business. The state Legislature has cut the parks completely off of taxpayer support, beginning next year, forcing the hundred-year-old agency to rely solely on user fees, volunteers and "new enterprise."

What is new enterprise? Here's an example, as dreamed up by the parks' "Revenue and Efficiency Task Force":

"Lease park property to for-profit businesses offering retail sales of recreational products (RV's, boats, campers, ATVs, snowmobiles) and product placement in parks (e.g., personal-care products in restrooms.)"

You read that right: They are trying to save the parks with product placement. This outhouse may have been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but the updates are 100 percent Pottery Barn. Orders can be placed with the campground host!

We have completely lost our minds with this free-market mania.

To be blunt: Parks are not businesses. They are socialism. That was the whole point, starting with the founding of Yellowstone in the late 1800s — to shield a few of the country's wild places from capitalism.

It's not that capitalism is evil. It's just that the twin, unique goals of parks — preservation forever of the resources and access to all the public — are not exactly capitalism's strong suits.

Making parks run like businesses won't work. Asking this of, say, the Port of Seattle, which runs a container terminal and an airport, might make some sense. Yet we prop that place up with $75 million a year in property taxes — nearly double, by the way, what the state park system got from taxpayers at its peak.

We need to just pay taxes for parks. There isn't any way to make a far-flung, peculiar place like Steptoe Butte pay for itself. Not without blanketing its entire dome with windmills or more cell towers (State officials: That was not a suggestion!)

When a first telecom tower went in there decades ago (there are five now), it rankled the man who donated the land to be preserved "for all the people, forever and ever." Virgil McCroskey objected that the tower sullied the very thing that made the park special in the first place — that it's an "island in the sky."

Not business park in the sky. Not profit center. Island. It's sad we no longer see — or are too cheap to maintain — the difference.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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