“Pay to Play”: The Increasing Privatisation of Traditionally Open-Access Public Resources

From promising models of sustainable multi-attribute forest management to the disastrous erosion of U.S. national park protections by the Trump administration.

For: Dalia D’Amato, postdoc researcher
Ecosystem Services MSc Course (FOR109)
University of Helsinki


This past autumn seems to have brought an abundance of news articles about the state of affairs in the national parks of the United States.  I have long been aware of the importance to the American people of these locations that are in many cases household names even around the world: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Redwoods, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Badlands, Great Bend and Everglades to name just a handful of the national parks, all with breathtakingly unique natural features.

Despite their indisputable grandness, they are not normally subject to quite this much media attention. I believe, that the new wave of interest began during the transition of the U.S. federal government from the Obama administration to that of Donald Trump. Some of President Obama’s last efforts were to better protect public land from resource extraction (Milman 2016). The privatization of these public lands has indeed been high on the Trump administration’s agenda, with the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke evaluating 27 protected monuments and just recently announcing an 80% reduction of Utah’s Bears Ears National Park, a sell-off of over 400 000 ha of public land rich in cultural artefacts and sacred to local tribes (Price 2017).

As with most issues of American interest, the narrative involves a strong sense of national identity and entitlement, although it would be pertinent to keep in mind that the land was originally “appropriated” from the First Nations tribes. One of the lofty American values that is easier to appreciate, is the expressed desire for equal access to the lands for all. In practice, however, it seems to be mostly middle-aged white men who enjoy the parks and since Americans are averse to paying taxes, the national parks are in disrepair and running a deficit (Rock 2017, Hansman 2017).

This brings us to some of the most fundamental topics regarding ecosystem services: who benefits from them, how can they be valued and who will be held accountable for a deterioration in their availability. There are many ways to integrate these aspects into the economic model, like payments for environmental services and the offsetting of negative externalities. In my studies, I have focussed on the so-called “non-timber forest products” which are related to environmental services in the sense that their availability is dependent on functioning natural ecosystems. In Europe, there are some innovative schemes developing for the licensing of natural product collection from both public and private land, which are particularly interesting.

The American Way

There seems to be almost complete disdain for socialism in the United States, though there is an exception regarding public lands extending back to March 1st, 1872, when Yellowstone National Park was established “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”. To this day, over 400 national parks have been established in the United States (US National Park Service 2017).

I’m glad that Americans have maintained this niche through which they can attribute collective value to something beyond the immediate struggle of their daily lives in the otherwise mess that unrestrained capitalism has gotten them into. I know that comes off as a rather harsh judgment, but consider the article The Winners and Losers of Free Market Capitalism (Forbes 2015) and what kind of society hard-line capitalism would lead to.  It is important to remember that other countries have national and natural parks that are just as highly regarded by their citizens and visitors alike. Banff National Park in Canada, for example, and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

It seems a bit absurd to talk about the parks being their “birth-right”, since only a few hundred years ago they were inhabited by another people, but perhaps this patriotism and nostalgia could be harnessed to promote conservation goals. The austerity measures of the U.S. Congress have reduced the annual operating budget of 3.1 billion dollars by 8% over ten years even though there is a maintenance backlog of almost 12 billion dollars (Rock 2017). Trump has proposed slashing the National Park Service’s budget by almost 400 million dollars and proposes to address the deferred maintenance costs through privatization of park services, while it is already experiencing costly lawsuits from private operators and is struggling to preserve the accessibility for middle-class and low-income visitors.  In this light, the ideals don’t mean much if nobody is willing to foot the bill and if the current trend continues, the parks will be degraded, opened to resource exploration and sold off to private interests (Hansman 2017).

Increasing Access Fees

The usage of parks does in fact cause wear which can to at least some extent reduce the benefits to other visitors.  The Zion National Park in Utah, for example, experience high levels of traffic which could be better managed through a registration system, but many oppose this kind of solution on principles, even if it would be without a fee (Turkewitz 2017, Rosenbloom 2017). It seems like this can be a case in which holding on to one’s principles may in fact be insulating the parks from normal instruments of market capitalism that could be beneficial, namely the forces of supply and demand.  When access fees are charged by the National Park Service, they are funnelled back into the management of the parks. 80% going to maintenance of the park where the visitor fees are charged and 20% going to a pool to support other free parks.

While reservation and entry fees seem to be a reasonable mechanism for regulating the flow of visitors, the current political climate means that the National Park Service has had to propose a one-time increase to visitor fees of up to 300% (Associated Press 2017). At this point the egalitarian nature of park access does come into question and the increased fees may be prohibitive for young or low-income families (Chubb 2017). Even for those not visiting the parks on a regular basis, there is certainly some value in the fact that they exist and are preserved.

Valuation Methods of Open Access Public Resources

During this course on ecosystem services, we learned that conservation economics involves various mechanisms for evaluating the value of natural resources and the services they provide in both monetary and non-monetary ways. The preferences of stakeholders can be gauged both quantitatively and qualitatively though non-consultative, consultative, or discourse based methods.  Statistics can be consulted, for example participants can be can be interviewed directly, or even more collaborative methods can be employed, like workshops and voting applications (Kelemen et al. 2016, Wilson 2002).

Monetary evaluation for intangible or public assets often involves what is known as contingent valuation. It is a consultative method to find what value an individual would give to these, even though there are no markets by which they can be measured. Willingness to pay for environmental services, access to resources or even for the existence of a special place is a quantitative metric that can be useful when making management decisions regarding the resource.  Due to the abstract nature of the subject matter however, the method can be slightly problematic, since participants are not actually obliged to pay the stated amount (Conservation Strategy Fund 2016).

Regarding the practical aspects of research methods for monetary evaluation Bateman et al. (2010) offer some guidance: It is important to get the participant in the right state of mind before they are asked to give an actual value. A survey could begin by asking detailed questions about the more qualitative aspects of the subject to cause the participant to think more deeply about what they value and why. There are a lot of factors that can affect the responses though, like the framing of the question and the possibility for protest votes when there are emotional responses or misunderstandings. Sometimes the value of public goods lacking market values, like open-access recreation and peace and quiet, can be inferred by linking them to so-called “weakly complementary” correlated private goods.

An Integrated Economic Model: A Better Way

Despite the challenges in measuring and capturing the value of public open access resources, they are clearly of importance and being of a finite nature, their worth should inevitably increase over time. If access is prohibitive, however, because of expensive visitor fees or other reasons, an urban population could slowly lose their connection to nature and be less concerned with the protection of these natural resources in pristine condition.

Spain is also a country of massive landscapes. In Andalucía where I have spent some time, there are numerous and rather large reserves of public land, both national and natural parks. A study by Rescia et al. (2010) provides insight into the cultural landscape around natural reserves in one of these, Sierra Norte de Seville. In the Mediterranean region, there is a history of traditional land use intermixed with public land. In this case, the 92% of the land comprising the natural reserve is under private ownership. Socioeconomic pressures, like the decreasing viability of traditional land use, aging and decreasing population and the loss of traditional economic knowledge are factors likely to affect land-use change in the future.  There are a lot of drivers towards the resilience of the natural reserve however, including sustainable hunting, rural tourism, the appreciation of local products (denomination of origin) and subsidies for conservation of landscapes.

In this way, a combination of increasingly valued ecosystem services could be integrated into the management of landscapes involving multiple attributes: conservation, recreation, culture and production. By improving the economic viability of various activities around parks, rural livelihoods could be enhanced while ensuring the sustainability of these valued public lands.

In a study regarding the viability of introducing payments for the collection of wild forest mushrooms in Catalonia, Prokofieva et al. (2017) found the attitudes towards extracting fees for traditional mushroom picking on private land, at least by commercial interests, to be quite positive. In this way, the activity can be allowed to continue and funds from the scheme would be directed towards the management of the forests in a way favourable for mushroom production. This is an excellent example of a regulatory mechanism that would not only result in economic benefits, but would have positive cultural and ecological implications as well.

In Finland, though there are plenty of parks and vast public forests, especially in the north, a great deal of forest land is under private ownership. The rules for land access are somewhat unique, as the freedom to roam law means that many forest products like mushrooms and berries can be collected by anyone even on private land, within a certain distance of homes and cultivated plots. Finns are in fact some of the most active wild food collectors in Europe, with 58% of those aged 15 to 78 participating in berry harvesting at least once a year (Vaara et al. 2013). There are plans under development by the ministry of agriculture to further increase the role of natural products, for example a licensing scheme for the collection of woody products from public land or those otherwise not covered by the freedom to roam, like the highly valued Chaga tree fungus Inonotus obliquus Pilát. that grows on birch Betula spp. L. trees.

Schulp et al. (2014) present a thorough overview of the wild food culture throughout Europe and argue that the topic is not given enough emphasis in the discussion about ecosystem services. I must agree that the sector is impressive and profoundly interesting as the recipes and uses are so interconnected with rich cultural traditions.


In the modern globalised world, there is an abundance of pressures driving land-use change of all kinds of natural environments. National and natural parks exist to protect valuable landscapes in the face of these, but in an era of austerity measures and budget cutbacks it seems like the public coffers are not sufficient to serve this purpose. In the United States, President Trump would open national parks to private enterprise and resource exploration in the interest of economic development and to balance the budget, but what legacy will that approach lead to?

Although in Europe austerity measures are widespread as well, there is a solid cultural foundation upon which an integrated economic model for the management of public lands could be developed and the progress so far seems promising. There are plenty of natural products in the United States as well, so similar models could be explored there to improve the viability of their national park system, perhaps while increasing social engagement. As long it’s only the economic bottom line being considered, plundering the resources for the oil industry may seem to be the best option, but let’s hope that on a worldwide basis we can head in the direction of increasingly holistic management practices.

If Americans, and people from any country for that matter, value natural reserves and consider them part of the national heritage, then they should also be willing to pay the taxes necessary to keep them in existence.


Associated Press. 2017, October 25. National Park Service wants to sharply raise entry fees at most popular parks. The Guardian. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Bateman, I.J., Fezzi, Grace G.M., Atkinson, C. Turner, G.K., 2010. Economic analysis for ecosystem service assessments. Environmental Resource Economics 48(2): 177–218.

Chubb, Laura. 2017, November 8. Anger as US national parks plan high-season price hikes. The Guardian. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Collins, Mike. 2015, Aug 4. The Winners And Losers of Free Market Capitalism.  Forbes. Accessed 2017, December 24.

Conservation Strategy Fund. 2016, March 23. Valuation of Ecosystem Services: Contingent Valuation.

Hansman, Heather. 2017, January 19. Congress moves to give away national lands, discounting billions in revenue. The Guardian. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Kelemen et al. (2016). Non-monetary techniques for the valuation of ecosystem services, in Potschin and Jax: OpenNESS Ecosystem Services Reference Book, 5 pp.

Milman, Oliver. 2016, November 24. Obama administration rushes to protect public lands before Trump takes office. The Guardian. Accessed 2017, November 14.

O’Connor, Mary C.  2017, June 25. As Trump moves to privatize America’s national parks, visitor costs may rise. The Guardian.  Accessed 2017, November 15.

Price, L. Michelle. 2017, November 14. Trump expected to significantly reduce 2 Utah monuments. The Washington Post. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Prokofieva, I., Górriz-Mifsud, E., Bonet, JA. et al. Viability of Introducing Payments for the Collection of Wild Forest Mushrooms in Catalonia. Small-scale Forestry (2017) 16: 147.

Rescia AJ, Willaarts BA, Schmitz MF, Aguilera PA. Changes in land uses and management in two nature reserves in spain: Evaluating the social–ecological resilience of cultural landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2010;98(1):26-35.

Rock, Lucy. 2017, January 15. Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive? The Guardian. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Rosenbloom, Stephanie. 2017, October 6. More U.S. Parks and Attractions Are Offering Online Reservations. NY Times. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Schulp CJE, Thuiller W, Verburg PH. Wild food in europe: A synthesis of knowledge and data of terrestrial wild food as an ecosystem service. Ecological Economics. 2014;105(Supplement C):292-305.

Turkewitz, Julie. (2017, September 27). National Parks Struggle with a Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors.  Accessed: 2017, November 15.

US National Park Service. US National Park Service History. Accessed 2017, November 15.

Vaara M, Saastamoinen O, Turtiainen M. Changes in wild berry picking in finland between 1997 and 2011. Scand J For Res. 2013;28(6):586-595.

Wilson, M. A., Howarth, R. B., 2002. Discourse-based valuation of ecosystem services: Establishing fair outcomes through group deliberation. Ecological Economics 41(3): 431–443.