Park Concessions: Historic Privatization

Park Concessions: Historic Privatization
by Reed Engle, Cultural Resource Specialist

By the time the National Park Service was established in August 1916, Congress had created nine national parks and twelve national monuments. Although these sites were under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior, most were in the West and were run by the Army which saw its function strictly as the protection of timber and mineral resources and the prevention of homesteading. The government's role was defined as one of protection; provision of access, facilities and programs for visitors was not seen as a governmental function.

The Yellowstone Act of 1872 that established America 's first “ Public Park ” required the Secretary of the Interior to “provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within the said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” It also allowed the Secretary to “grant leases for building purposes . . . of small parcels of ground, at such places in the park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors.” Thus from the beginning private concessioners were to provide the food and lodging for visitors in our national parks.

For the first three decades after Yellowstone 's establishment, park concession development was chaotic. The railroad lines built the first facilities in an attempt to increase passenger traffic in the west, but their earliest lodgings were little more than tent cities or recreations of eastern Victorian hotels. The Yosemite Valley was a sprawl of unregulated and competitive tourist accommodations. It was not until the Northern Pacific Railroad built Yellowstone 's Old Faithful Inn in 1903-1904 that the national parks gave birth to an architectural style complementary to their specific locations. Created from local materials, typically reflective of local architectural details and sensitive to the local landscape and environment, always rustic, the style would become known as “parkitecture.” Yet the Inn remained the exception--in most national parks there were a myriad of concessioners and the smaller ones continued to erect shoddy buildings and conduct unethical enterprises.

It was not until 1925 that the Department of the Interior came to the conclusion that providers of public services in parks should be limited. The Secretary issued policy that stated:

As franchises for the operations of public utilities in the national parks represent in most instances a large investment, and as the obligation to render service satisfactory to the Department at carefully regulated rates is imposed, these enterprises must be given a large measure of protection, and generally speaking competitive business is not authorized where the operator is meeting [National Park] service requirements, which coincide as nearly as possible with the needs of the traveling public.

The new policy was based on sound economic principles. The NPS had implemented standards for new concession development that required significant financial investment. Yet, concessioners had to do business in locations that were far from sources of available labor and supplies, subjected to frequent losses of utilities and natural disasters, and were able to operate only during short seasons. Investors were not willing to develop facilities in parks without assurances of long-term contracts, without competition, from other businesses not required to make similar investments.

Shenandoah National Park presented a challenge for the National Park Service. Not only did dozens of businesses exist in the park at the time of its authorization, dozens of influential park supporters applied for concession permits before the park was established. Requests to establish photographic studios, post card stands, tour guide operations, and tourist hotels flooded into Washington . The NPS at first thought that the new park could be divided into several units, with separate concessioners. Later it demanded a $500,000 investment in new facilities at the height of the Great Depression. On its third request for proposals, the Park Service received a concession offering that it accepted from Virginia Sky-Line Company. The offer to develop visitor facilities in Shenandoah would lead to approximately $300,000 in new development concentrated at Dickey Ridge, Skyland, Big Meadows, and Lewis Mountain. Starting in 1937, Virginia Sky-Line Company, Inc., with significant oversight from the National Park Service, designed and built, or in the case of Skyland's existing buildings rehabilitated, the lodges, restaurants, and cabins that today form the core of the Skyline Drive Historic District.

Today we read a great deal about the outsourcing and privatization of governmental tasks. But for over 125 years the National Park Service has worked closely with private partners to provide for visitors' needs.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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