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Paying to Play

As corporations and privateers gear up for Earth Day, environmental activist Scott Silver aims his gaze at one of the most overlooked developments in the anti-environmental arsenal -- the growing trend of privatization on America's public lands.
 
 
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Over its 35-year history, Earth Day -- originally established during the pre-Watergate days of the Nixon administration, and celebrated on April 22 -- has devolved from a day set aside for careful consideration of the planet to a rather free-ranging and amorphous series of public celebrations and civic activities, many sponsored by multinational corporations. At EarthDay.gov, the Bush Administration is hailing Earth Day as "a time to celebrate gains we have made and create new visions to accelerate environmental progress."

In an era where the Bush administration characterizes its environmental agenda as "common sense" environmentalism, there are a slew of front-burner issues that will likely get short shrift on Earth Day including global warming, drilling for oil in the Artic, new legislation aimed at lifting the ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in the U.S., and increasing threats to the water we drink and air we breathe.

One issue that will definitely not get much attention is the growing trend toward privatizing America's public lands. Privatization is one of the most "insidious and all-encompassing developments" that will ultimately force Americans to "pay to play," at recreation areas all across the country, says Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, a Central Oregon-based environmental organization.

The issue of privatization reared its head in an unlikely manner recently when in addition to the usual requirements being sought -- expertise in dealing with budgetary matters, and an ability to organize and set work priorities -- a new one was tucked into a job posting for a new director of tourism for the National Park Service. The new requirement, suggesting that the candidate be able to ''create, nurture, and expand tourism programs that promote private sector support" -- had "environmentalists worrying about creeping commercialization and added strain on already overburdened parks," the Boston Globe recently reported.

''It smacks of heavy corporate involvement," Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Globe. "Marketing tactics could influence policy and lead to promiscuous partnering. That would allow wholesale commercialization and 'Disney-fy' our national parks." In addition, Ruch pointed out, ''With cutbacks in staff and maintenance, you have to question why they want to invest in increasing visitation."

''The goal remains to give guests a good experience in national parks," acting tourism director Edie Sean-Hammond said. ''My successor will have to look at appropriate visitation -- in some parks there are places that have reached capacity and how to deal with that."

Wild Wilderness' Scott Silver is an old-school activist who got involved with environmental issues through fighting to preserve free access to America's public lands. For more than decade, Silver has been has been monitoring and tracking the growth, lobbying expertise, and political influence of the recreation industry.

Bill Berkowitz: Tell me how you got involved in environmental activism.

Scott Silver: I gave up a career in science and moved to Central Oregon in the late 1980s. I'd always dreamed of someday living in a small community in the Pacific Northwest since wilderness travel and backcountry skiing were my passions.

Central Oregon has long attracted a great deal of tourism and recreational use though back in the 1980s, the nearby Three Sisters Wilderness offered plenty of opportunities to get close to nature. During the summer months the wilderness could get a bit crowded, but in winter, the experiences available to backcountry skiers were incomparable and solitude was all but assured.

My introduction to environmental activism began in 1990 when the local U.S. Forest Service was entertaining two proposals that would have permitted commercial yurt-to-yurt ski touring within, and adjacent to, the Three Sisters Wilderness. I was concerned that the wilderness would be filled with paying tourists and, to put it bluntly, I didn't take kindly to the idea of finding a yurt village in my own favorite ski bowl.

How did that battle develop?

My best friend and frequent skiing partner, Dale Neubauer, set out to block these yurt-to-yurt proposals and we spent months learning about forest planning by studying the Wilderness Act. We came to the conclusion that these proposals were illegal so we began attending Forest Service meetings, referring to ourselves as "a couple of guys who appreciated the value of wilderness."

While circulating a petition asking that the Three Sisters be protected, we decided that we need a name and we chose "Wild Wilderness." Our mission would be to represent those in our local community who sought naturalness, solitude, challenge and inspiration in their outdoor recreational experiences.

How did the mission of Wild Wilderness change?

We won that yurt-to-yurt battle and went on to tackle the issue of snowmobiling. Each season the machines got more powerful, more noisy, more numerous and consumed more of the winter wild, so we found ourselves in competition with a growing number of non-motorized winter recreation groups who were looking to expand their own trail systems into those blank spots on the map used by our supporters. Over time we became champions of "undeveloped recreation" and fought a growing number of proposals to commercialize, privatize and motorize recreational opportunities on our surrounding public lands.

In 1997, Dale and I stopped by a local Forest Service office to pick up a pair of newly required recreational passes. The year before, Congress authorized the "Recreation Fee Demonstration Program" which permitted land managers to charge for access to, and use of, federally managed lands. We hadn't thought much about this program but we left their office with a flyer that, quite literally, changed our lives and began the transformation of Wild Wilderness from a local recreation group to what has evolved into America's most visible and vocal opponent of the corporate takeover of nature, and the Disneyfication of the wild. That Fee-Demo program was the creation of commercial and motorized recreation interests whose interest were 180 degrees different than ours.

Does Wild Wilderness lobby, demonstrate, call to action, etc. on environmental issues? Is it a membership organization?

In January 1999, Wild Wilderness incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, non-membership, non-profit organization. We organized national days of action in 1998 and 1999 that each involved dozens of protests in 10 or more states. Incorporating was needed, primarily, to provide legal protection and insulation for Dale and myself. When the Walt Disney Company threatened to sue Wild Wilderness in August of 1999, I was glad that their threats were directed at a legal corporation and not at me personally. Ironically, we were able to parlay the threat by Disney into media coverage in such disparate venues as the Earth First! Journal and Forbes magazine.

Where would you place Wild Wilderness in the constellation of other environmental organizations -- smaller and larger groups?

We like to think of ourselves as perhaps the leanest, meanest and most influential small environmental organization in the country. Ten years ago we were indistinguishable from thousands of local advocacy groups each fighting to protect local areas from specific threats. Over the years, Wild Wilderness became synonymous with a fight to protect the wildness from industrial tourism and motorized "wreckreation."

Things are changing at a rapid pace on America's public lands. What do you see as the biggest issues facing the public these days?

Twenty or 30 years ago outdoor recreation upon public lands was almost invariably low key, generally primitive and never thought of as a money-making proposition by federal land managers. Outdoor recreation was considered a birthright and a common-good, available to all. People who hiked, fished, hunted, rode horses, camped and enjoyed other traditional recreational activities, more often than not, were engaged in what we've called 'undeveloped recreation,' and because those activities were undeveloped, the costs associated with providing those recreational opportunities were low.

Twenty years ago, the Reagan administration and the recreation industry developed a new vision of outdoor recreation in the great outdoors. Reagan's President's Commission on Americans Outdoors in 1987 set federal land recreation on an entirely new path, one that would lead to the development of recreation into commodities -- goods and services that should be marketed and sold to paying customers. The early battle Wild Wilderness fought to prevent hut-to-hut skiing in our local wilderness was emblematic of countless battle that are now being fought every day in all parts of the nation.

In this era of shrinking budgets, why isn't the concept of public-private partnerships a good idea?

Budgets are not shrinking, they are being shrunk. In 1982, President Reagan first tried to change federal laws so as to permit the charging of fees for outdoor recreation. He directly linked that new fee authority to an immediate and dramatic cut in the budgets for the National Park Service and other land management agencies. The intent was to de-fund these agencies and force them to not only become self-funding, but to broadly embrace privatization.

User-fees were only one of the privatization tools that Reagan introduced. Partnerships, increased dependence upon volunteers, outsourcing, reductions of services, and contracting out were additional tools.

Public-private partnerships need not be a bad thing and can, with the right partners and the right mission, be beneficial. When they come about specifically to advance a privatization agenda, it is a terrible concept. When land managers have their budgets starved and become desperate for money they tend to be more willing to engage in partnerships that do not serve the mission of the agency nor do they serve the needs of the public at large.

PPV's that serve the narrowly focused needs of the private partner deprive the general public of the value of their public lands. When a snowmobile club, for example, partners with the U.S. Forest Service to create and groom a new snowmobile riding area, they have no interest in protecting the interests of skiers, snowshoers and other current users of the area. Given adequate public funding, land managers might reasonably manage a particular area. However, when they are denied public funding and forced to operate using only privatization tools, the results can be disastrous.

What do you foresee for the future in terms of the Disneyfication of our public spaces?

First off, "Disneyfication" need not have anything to do with the Walt Disney Company. By the Disneyfication of public spaces, we are referring to the conversion of wildness into commodity. Disneyfication involves making the unexpected predictable and homogenizing experiences. The public is seen as customers.

In the specific case of the Disneyfication of public spaces, it happens that the Walt Disney Company is a major player and represents a major threat. Ever since the Sierra Club successfully fought Disney's attempt to develop their proposed Mineral King Ski Resort in the 1970s, Disney has explored new opportunities for expanding their traditional market into National Parks. This summer, for the first time ever, Disney will begin operating tours in Yellowstone National Parks. Tours will cost between $5,600 and $7,800 for a family of four. "Mickey Mouse and other costumed characters would appear only in very controlled settings, if they appear it all" the press has reported.

How does privatization fit in with the Bush administration's overall approach to the environment and public policy?

When Ronald Reagan's budget director called for de-funding National Parks, it was part of a concerted effort to "Starve the Beast"; the "Beast" being the government. The Bush Administration is completing Reagan's agenda. Bush's tax cuts for the rich and unbounded military expansionism all but ensure that there will not be adequate funding for the maintenance of public spaces. Without adequate funding, this administration will be able to say -- with a totally straight face -- that there is no money for education, Medicare, Amtrak, interstate highways, National Parks etc. and everything will, of necessity, have to be privatized.

Privatization does not necessarily mean that ownership will transfer from the public to the private sector. It simply means that management control will transfer to private interests and that current federal funding will be partially redirected to the new controlling private interests and that users' fees, commercialization and sale of assets will make up the difference.

Can you give some examples of the public-private partnership in action? How are they working? Are they all bad? Is there some shining example of successful partnerships?

Public-private partnerships occur in all shapes and sizes; some are good and some bad. The Army Corps of Engineers recently launched something called the "Recreation Partnership Initiative" which they describe in these words, "The intent of the program is to encourage private development of public recreation facilities such as; marinas, hotel/motel/restaurant complexes, conference centers, RV camping areas, golf courses, theme parks, and entertainment areas with shops, etc." The Corps goes on to say that it is "excited about the possibility of providing these additional opportunities for private sector development of public recreation facilities. These opportunities provide a win, win, win situation. The private developers win because of the excellent opportunities they will have to make a profit. The public wins because of the additional recreation opportunities made available to them and the Corps and the federal government win because much needed public recreational facilities are provided at no cost to the government."

Whether you'd agree with that assessment likely depends on your values. If when you think of public lands you think of camping in a tent, eating food you cooked on grill, paddling a canoe in a quiet lake and generally decompressing in a natural setting, you will not like this partnership initiative. If, on the other hand, you're looking for an attractive setting where you can have a corporate retreat, play some golf, rent a houseboat for a rocking party, and stay in world class hotel accommodations, you might indeed see this initiative as a win-win-win.

To be honest, I can't think of a single PPV to hold up as a shining example. Even programs such as Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly -- which began as government programs intended to promote good stewardship ethics -- were taken over by the private sector in the early '90s and degenerated into public relations marketing tools designed to promote expanded recreational access.

What will all this mean for the average family that might want to go camping or hiking this summer?

Recreation in the great outdoors is becoming increasingly scripted so that your average family will find less adventure and greater predictability and they are going to find themselves forced to make choices as to what experiences they can afford: More advanced planning will be required, reservations will have to be made, and decisions such as whether to select the premium camping site by the river or the discount site by the toilet will become part of the planning process.

Your average campers are likely to find themselves sleeping in a tent surrounded by motor-homes. Sounds of nature will be replaced by sounds of generators, televisions, showers and toilets flushing. National Park Services, such as interpretive presentations that once were free, may now carry a price-tag. Hiking trails will be inaccessible unless a fee is paid; the same thing with lakes, rivers and streams. Attractions that catch your eye and would otherwise draw you to them will, quite literally, be off-limits unless you have purchased the required pass or booked in advance. Those on tight budgets will likely find themselves deciding that standing by a particular stream and peering into the water, is just not worth the cost.

Politically speaking what is the relationship between the Bush administration and the pay-to-play recreation outfits and organizations?

The recreation and tourism industry, which was tight with George H.W. Bush, is even tighter with Dubya. Land management leadership in the current Bush administration is jam-packed with hard-core, pro-privatization ideologues. While the terms 'cooperation, 'partnerships,' and 'volunteerism' flow, their meaning is more akin to 'co-option,' 'privatization,' and 'voluntary outsourcing.'

The agencies are only too happy to give their private-sector partners whatever they request because the federal managers are looking to get out of the business of providing outdoor recreation. Ultimately, if things go according to plan, it will be the outfitters, recreation organizations and entertainment companies like Disney, who will be tomorrow's providers of memorable outdoor experiences on what once were America's public lands.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.