Privatization Lives Under the NPS Radar
Waterfront property almost always is treasured, and almost always carries a premium price. Unfortunately, the National Park Service has taken those adages a bit too far for an agency that is supposed to preserve public lands for the general public.
According to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, for roughly the past 30 years a handful of NPS units in the East have been granting exclusive use of park lands to private organizations.
We found that NPS has allowed private individuals or exclusive clubs to monopolize desirable locations near major metropolitan areas for decades to the exclusion of the general public, although we could not identify the extent of this permitting, the OIG concludes in a report dated April 10. Some of the clubs charge high membership fees or limit the number of people who can become members. NPS continues to renew the permits for these exclusive clubs and has kept the $2.6 million in permit fees received over the 4-year period of our review instead of remitting the funds to the U.S. Treasury.
Additionally, according to the OIG, the NPS has allowed these permits to be renewed time and again without conducting environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act. More so, it's not known how many similar special-use permits the Park Service has approved system-wide against the general public's best interests, the Inspector General's office reported.
Park Service Director Mary Bomar has promised to embrace five recommendations made by the OIG. They range from surveying all units of the NPS to see if similar special-use permits have been issued to ensuring that all required NEPA reviews are conducted.
The 25-page OIG report does not paint a flattering picture of Park Service management, particularly since the National Park Service Organic Act "prohibits leasing, renting or granting (through permits) of land and structures if such activity interferes with free public access to them."
In the instances OIG uncovered, the Park Service granted special-use permits to sections of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and the Gateway National Recreation Area.
Our limited review uncovered five instances where NPS has permitted groups to operate beach and surf clubs, boat moorings, canoeing facilities, and cabins to the exclusion of the general public, states the OIG report. Moreover, some of these operations, located near major metropolitan areas, offer preferential access to beaches, waterways, and scenic nature areas.
In the case of Gateway NRA, the Silver Gull Beach Club and Breezy Point Surf Club charged membership fees ranging from $315 for a child to $770 for an adult couple for a three-month summer season. Additionally, related cabana rental fees ranged from $400 to as much as $9,999 for the season.
Ironically, in Gateway's 1979 general management plan Park Service officials pledged to remove the private cabanas and replace them with cabanas and locker facilities open to the general public. Five years later, in 1984, the NPS regional director for the area wrote that "current membership practices will have to be discontinued. Clubs will be opened to the public on an equal opportunity basis."
Yet, according to the OIG report, still nothing was done.
Additionally, according to the OIG report, Gateway officials have allowed the Rockaway Point Yacht Club to operate "on public lands for over 30 years and continues to operate, although the permit expired in 2004."
Mary Bomar, coincidentally, was the Park Service's Northeast regional director from July 2005 until she ascended to Park Service director last September.
At the Washington Canoe Club that uses land within the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP, membership is capped at 200 and there's a 35-name waiting list. Applicants must have two member sponsors, agree to a private interview, and then win Board of Directors approval for membership.
In the cases cited, the OIG found that the general public was quite literally locked out of using these Park Service lands.
Private clubs have erected fences and created other impediments to preclude access to facilities or public lands described on the permits, reads the OIG report. For example, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds NPS land used by the Washington Canoe Club within the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park. According to the permit, use of 22 cabins in the NHP is controlled by the Whites Ferry Sportsman's Club, even though NPS owns all the cabins. In addition, at Gateway NRA, monitored gates prevent public entry to lands on which the surf clubs operate.