Free-Market Environmentalists, that small band of economists, didn’t talk much about the National Park Service in the early 1980’s. In their effort to convince the public that the government is often a poor steward, they concentrated on commodity-producing agencies that are supposed to be efficient, agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Their recommendation to put even these agencies into private hands met such fierce resistance that it seemed futile to discuss the National Park Service, which has an almost sanctified image as a protector of pristine nature.

That situation changed in 1986 when Alston Chase published Playing God in Yellowstone. His book provided a case study of mismanagement that supported nearly every point that the free-marketers wanted to make. Chase argued persuasively that the park’s wildlife habitat had deteriorated to the point where its ecological balance was seriously askew. He contended that the cause was the “hands-off” or “natural regulation” approach adopted in 1972, which was designed to let nature regulate Yellowstone’s wildlife as if white men had never arrived.

When Yellowstone burst into flames in 1988, Chase’s criticisms received new attention. As the fires burned out of control, critics inside and outside government blamed the Park Service’s “hands-off” policy (which quickly became known as the “let burn” policy). This policy, which allowed lightning-caused or “natural” fires to burn out of control, ignored the fact that fires had been suppressed for nearly a hundred years; the buildup of fuel contributed to the severity of the 1988 fires.

Chase had identified other problems with the “hands-off” approach, too. For example, predators such as the wolf and the mountain lion were eliminated long ago, so Yellowstone’s habitat is hardly “natural” today. Without predators and without any regulation of herd size by the Park Service, elk numbers have grown rapidly. Several biologists and range scientists argue that elk overgrazing has halted regrowth of vegetation such as willow and aspen and contributed to the near-extinction of beaver on the park’s northern range. The “hands-off” approach also meant that the elk’s population was headed for a crash when a severe winter came and food became scarce. That day came during the winter following the fires; one-quarter to one-third of the elk are believed to have died, mostly from starvation.

So it turns out that, just like the “commodity” agencies, the National Park Service is subject to political pressures—not just occasionally but inherently. “So long as the parks are owned and operated by government, the managers must be politically responsive to the various interest groups and constituent pressures within the stated mission of each park,” writes Richard Stroup in a new multi-authored book, The Yellowstone Primer (edited by John A. Baden and Donald R. Leal, Pacific Institute for Policy Research), which picks up where Playing God in Yellowstone leaves off. “Yet the very existence of different interest groups with conflicting goals, each quite legitimate . . . means that achieving the public good is a difficult task.”

Until the 1988 fires the “hands-off” approach was a politically successful strategy. It was championed by leaders of the top activist environmental groups, strong political allies of the Park Service, and for the most part it avoided conflict with the general public. Indeed, Park Service rangers had tried killing elk in the 1960’s to cull the growing herd, but the public outcry was so great that they had to stop—and “hands off” or “natural” regulation justified future decisions not to intervene. (A park official contends that a similar public outcry would have been heard if the Park Service had intervened to gradually burn off the accumulating tinder that worsened the fires of 1988.)

Nonintervention policy may have worked politically, but it hasn’t enhanced or protected the environment. If Yellowstone is going to preserve its wildlife, managers need greater freedom from special interest groups but also more accountability for their actions. (The National Park Service public relations machine often takes the place of accountability.)

Private nonprofit organizations are more effective in protecting the environment, partly because they have the freedom to intervene when doing so is consistent with their mission. For example. The Nature Conservancy protects grizzly bears on its preserve at Pine Butte, Montana, by setting and controlling fires that stimulate plant growth and by planting native vegetation such as chokecherries that grizzlies eat. And Ducks Unlimited actively creates wetlands to protect waterfowl.

Since private ownership of any national park is not politically feasible, free-market environmentalists have tried to come up with approaches that mimic private ownership. One of those is Richard Stroup’s proposal for quasiprivate park endowment boards that would manage segments of national parks.

Stroup’s idea is to dedicate each park unit (a large, diverse park would have more than one unit) to a narrow purpose, create a board of environmentalists committed to that purpose, and give them freedom to act as long as they remain true to the narrowly specified goal. Rather than obtain support from congressional appropriations (the avenue for political control), the endowment would be financed the way private organizations finance their activities—by means such as entrance fees, voluntary donations, and even, when an endowment board deems it appropriate, oil or mineral rights. The purpose of a park endowment board would be to find a way to let managers concentrate on carrying out their mission, something that Park Service managers are hampered from doing now.