All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1964

Exploring the National Parks

Mr. Sparks is a business executive of Canton, Ohio, recently returned with his family from a vacation trip through the West.

The past half-century has seen in America far more outright gov­ernment ownership, and closer government participation and in­tervention in areas of private own­ership, than ever before accept­able to the people of our country. This alien concept of government meets with less and less public op­position, much as the foot learns to accommodate an ill-fitting shoe. Today, few people are sufficiently shocked to voice dissent when the latest scheme to extend the scope of government is posed in the leg­islative halls. In large part, we have become numb and insensitive to these encroachments upon pri­vate property.

Occasionally, a new dissenter will emerge to take a stand against the most recent invasion of pri­vate ownership rights—but even he may be oblivious to earlier similar erosions. His awakening is just begun. It is not unusual to find him defending other areas of government intervention and own­ership to which he has grown ac­customed and for which he visual­izes no alternative.

On the other hand, the exciting reaction to the reborn idea of pri­vate ownership may be likened to the thrill from one’s sudden aware­ness of new and beautiful vistas. From such stimulation can come fruitful cultivation of areas now lying fallow.

Our purpose here is to turn men’s thoughts to those waste­lands of government ownership and control that have been fore­closed to private initiative and development. Education is high on this list; and the category must include such functions as postal services, highways, and water sup­plies.

Another governmental activity, virtually unchallenged today, is the conservation of natural re­sources. Let us consider it, partic­ularly with reference to the vast system of national park facilities which are intended to preserve areas of natural beauty for recrea­tion and enjoyment by the Ameri­can people.

Review the Situation

To suggest that national parks be removed from government ownership is nearly as shocking as to propose the elimination of motherhood or baseball. But, if we can restrain our consternation, let us turn our minds toward the potentials and possibilities of pri­vate ownership. This will not be an attempt to stimulate a “heated revolution” against government-owned national parks. The pur­pose, rather, is to examine one of the least objectionable (and most sacred) cases of government ownership, to invite thinking about alternative arrangements, and at the same time to challenge more dangerous government-own­ership ideas.

There are well over one hundred national parks and national monu­ments occupying more than twenty-six million acres of land. Fearful that the increasing popu­lation would increase the demand for land, Congress in July, 1964, set aside within existing parklands fifty-four “wilderness areas.” Billions of dollars will be provided under another bill for new park land and waterways. “The purpose of the wilderness areas is to preserve some of the scenic wonders of the United States as they were when white men first saw them. These areas will be for the enjoyment of the person who seeks solitude in na­ture.”’ Other legislation is planned to improve the administration and use of the park lands.

Touring the West

Twelve million Americans visit national parks every year, hoping to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of nature. For many of these visi­tors, a trip through “the West” is a once-in-a-lifetime excursion to be packed into a two- to four-week vacation. The time must be severely budgeted if one is to see more than one or two of these scenic wonders. Usually, such a jaunt from the East or Midwest will at­tempt to include visits to such na­tional parks as Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, and Se­quoia—and perhaps Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons on the way back east. An automobile trip can be reasonably scheduled to reach all of these areas within the al­lotted time, but the prospect of seeing much when one gets there is dim unless several days are spent in each park. Practically nothing is done to assist the view­ing and enjoyment of the parks in the minimum amount of time.

The park roads are often of questionable layout. A typical na­tional park requires the traveler to cover many miles of side roads from the entrance to the attrac­tions of the greatest interest. Mesa Verde, for example, requires a tortuous twenty-mile trip from the entrance to the site of the famed cliff dwellers. The narrow, winding, climbing highway hangs on precipitous cliff walls at numer­ous points. What makes the view so breath-taking is the prospect of a plunge to the rocks a half-mile below. Once safely on top, one may explore the several cliff-dwelling areas—if he can stand the heat, climb the ladders up the face of the cliffs, crawl through tunnels, and calmly negotiate around the fellow explorer who has fainted or overextended him­self. No objection is posed here to methods, unlike my own, by which others may enjoy a national park. There are numerous trails for hiking and horse- or mule back riding. Camp sites, cabins, tents, and hotels allow for a variety of living tastes while there.

Thorough viewing of the wonders, however, has little or no variety to offer in regard to the sight­seeing means available. It is of only one category—best described as “roughing it,” or on the order of the primitive. This may be the best way for those who have the time and physical ability. My ob­jection is to its being the only way offered.

Why Not Let Disney Do It?

To wring out the enjoyment from the Grand Canyon National Park requires several days at the minimum and exhaustive climbs. All of this can be fun for some, but a mixture of disappointment and frustration for others. The thought that kept returning to me concerned a private owner of an­other place for public enjoyment.2 If Walt Disney were operating the Grand Canyon tourist area, for example, there undoubtedly would have been ways provided to see its thrilling beauties comfortably and without wastefully expending precious time scheduled for other park areas. How? I am content to leave such resourcefulness up to him, or to another similarly blessed with his happy brand of fantasy, inventiveness, and initiative.³ Would it be by a monorail penetrating the hidden wonders of the canyons? A skillfully and safely engineered shooting-the rapids of the Colorado River? I do not know. Of this, I am certain, however: were this scenic wonder owned by (or leased to) a private owner with profit as a goal, and imagination and ingenuity as a means, the traveler would be pleasantly treated to views and thrills now possible only at great expense of time and physical ef­fort.

A friend, discussing this idea, observed that a private owner probably would “overcharge,” re­vealing that he had spent nearly twenty-five dollars in one day with his family at Disneyland. “Think what Disney would charge for a monorail ride through the depths of Grand Canyon,” declared my friend. What he has forgotten is the amount of taxes each one of us must pay every year toward national park operation, whether or not we visit the Grand Canyon or any other park. The amount of that tax far exceeds the probable market price of a once-in-a-life­time series of pleasant, comfort­able, and safe excursions that cre­ative, profit-minded private own­ers or operators of scenic wonders would surely provide. The sav­ings of tax costs to the citizen doubtless would allow additional vacation enjoyments.

There Must Be a Better Way

No criticism is intended of the museums and displays at various park headquarters. They seem to be skillfully prepared; and the talks by naturalists and park rangers are capably presented. Undoubtedly, the parks are main­tained in accordance with the policy adopted by Congress years ago to conserve (or preserve) “… the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wildlife for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future genera­tions.”

Neither is there a quarrel with the goal to preserve our magnifi­cent mountains, canyons, and other splendors of nature, including native plants and wildlife. The value of such areas to various scientists must be considerable. And yet, the stated purpose of the national park system is to provide enjoyment to present generations without destroying the same for future generations. It is suggested that the nature of the own­ership is the probable reason why the national parks leave much to be desired for the enjoyment of their guests—that a private own­er (or lessee) would be more sensitive to the wishes and desires of customers and would offer im­proved accommodations and facili­ties. Unless this were done accept­ably, the owner (or lessee) of the park land would not attract enough customers to make a prof­itable return on his investment. Another investor would then “buyout” his inefficient predecessor, and the improvement of facilities would occur.

Unfounded Fears

Discussion of this subject also revealed a fear concerning what might happen if government were to remove itself altogether from ownership or control of the na­tional park recreational activity. That fear, simply stated: all rec­reational facilities available to the public would disappear. Why this would occur, my friend failed to explain. He just assumed, I suppose, that recreation would be an unprofitable enterprise with­out tax subsidy; therefore, no one would go into the private business of providing for the variety of sports and outdoor pastimes in which the American people seek relaxation. This bit of illogic flies in the face of a sporting goods in­dustry (thousands of privately-owned companies) that has grown in almost direct proportion to the increased leisure afforded by auto­mated machinery and mass pro­duction for the masses.

Suppose that golf courses had been under the sole ownership, control, and subsidy of govern­ment for the past twenty-five years, and that now someone were proposing private ownership. As in the case of national parks to­day, the illogical argument would be that only government is able to assemble enough land, to invest enough money for watering sys­tems and expensively constructed putting greens, and to absorb the costly maintenance and operating expenses. Without government, it would be argued, the healthful rec­reation of golf would disappear. Yet we know that private invest­ment in new golf courses and family country clubs all over the country has been phenomenal dur­ing these years—and without gov­ernment assistance.

When there is a demand for rec­reation—that is, people who want and are willing to pay for recrea­tion—there will be those to pro­vide it without resort to govern­ment. Had government not pre­empted the business of national parks, private investors would step in to meet the demand, more capably than is now done, to the great pleasure and delight of the vacationer. If hunting and fishing areas are demanded, these will be provided. If scenic viewing is de­sired, private investors and entre­preneurs will be there ready to give safe, comfortable, pleasur­able sightseeing to more custom­ers at less cost. Whatever recrea­tion it might be—camping, moun­tain climbing, skiing, white-water canoeing, hiking, bicycling, horse­back riding—the most ample and imaginative facilities at the lowest cost will be available to the Ameri­can public when the government removes itself from the field of recreation and allows the magic of the market place to step into this static breach.

Are the arguments convincing? Not to the point, I hope, that would send one off on a crusade for privately-owned or privately-leased “national” parks, because all crusaders are needed at more crucial places in the campaign against government tyranny. Yet the arguments may help to spike the weak, baseless contentions that public ownership is essential or even desirable for national parks. And by exploding that false prem­ise, we may help to stop some of the more serious governmental in­trusions into the private lives and against the private property of Americans.



¹ “Keeping the Wilderness Wild—How It Will Be Done,” U. S. News and World Report, August 24, 1964.

2 Disneyland, Anaheim, California, averages 5,500,000 visitors annually. Grand Canyon is estimated to have 500,000 annual viewers. Disney’s “Magic Kingdom,” aptly called the happiest place on earth, is made up of 65 acres, with an additional 105 acres of parking facilities—representing currently an in­vestment of 45 million dollars. Em­ployees of Disneyland number four thousand in the summer season, and two thousand year-round. The main ob­jective is wholesome family enjoyment, but not juvenile, as reflected in the sur­prising ratio of four adults to every child. Visitors come from fifty states and more than one hundred foreign nations, probably making it the greatest tourist attraction in the world.

3 For example, Walter Knott, the creator of Knott’s Berry Farm and Ghost Town, Buena Park, California. Started 44 years ago, this popular tour­ist attraction is estimated to have 41/2 million visitors annually. In 1951, Knott, an ardent crusader for the free-enter­prise society, bought a quaint Mojave Desert ghost mining-town called Calico, for $13,500. He faithfully restored the town at a cost of $700,000 as a historic monument. “When the overflowing visi­tors parked their cars on surrounding desert, the Department of Interior threatened to penalize Knott for tres­passing on government-owned land. He offered to buy some of the land, but In­terior officials demanded an exorbitant price,” as reported by The Reader’s Di­gest, June, 1964, in an article by Frank J. Taylor entitled “One Man’s Crusade for Everybody’s Freedom.” Later Knott deeded Calico to San Bernardino County for a park. The county then acquired the necessary land at 1/400 of the price asked from Knott. The Knotts contract to run the park for the County.




How should we consciously determine a future which is, by its very nature, beyond our comprehension? Such presumption re­veals only the narrowness of an outlook uninformed by humility.

MICHAEL POLANYI, The Logic of Liberty

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.