While threats of park closures loom across the nation, one nationally known tourism expert believes private enterprise could help save them.
John Koeberer knows of what he speaks – as CEO of Red Bluff’s The California Parks Company, he has been instrumental in helping privatize local, state and federal concessions when it doesn’t make sense for government workers to operate them.
“We can provide services to parks at a decreased cost,” Koeberer said. “And, can do it 30 to 50 percent less expensively. It makes many of these parks financially viable, yet we do so with similar concern for non-commerciality and environmental protection.”
His privately owned corporation staffs, manages and operates park facilities under contract with local, state or national park agencies. It was founded in 1975, when it began operating concessions at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Operations have now expanded throughout California. North State success stories includeconcessions at Drakesbad Guest Ranch, the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park, and campgrounds and boat rampsat Shasta and Trinity lakes.
California voters rejected a proposition in 2010 that would have increased taxes to operate and maintain the state’s parks, leavingstate government with no choice other than to close parks or find other solutions, Koeberer said.“We’re in front of this issue, demonstrating to government what the private sector can do that fulfills governmental objectives without increased cost,” he said.
Koeberer and his team have made it their mission to provide solutions that show how parks can be packaged regionally for private-sector management, or that others have sufficient revenue to be managed privately on their own. In that scenario, supervision and protection remain under state park direction, while maintenance, janitorial, fee collection, interpretation and limited security services are taken on by private contractors.
He believes generating new revenue can also keep parks afloat. Providing privately owned and managed tent cabins, yurts and other forms of alternative camping are one way to do this, he said. Tent cabins managed by The California Parks Company at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountainsdemonstrate this. They have been well received and have “served as a prototype for many like them throughout the state,” he said.
Similarly, in 2011, his company assisted the National Park Service in reintroducing“camping cabins” at Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The cabinsrange from $57 to $81 per night (bunk cabins accommodate up to eight people). “They are very successful,” Koeberer said, “because they fit what people want today – a heated cabin with locked door, yet close to nature.”
Koeberer’s connection with the tourism industry began in 1969, while he was working at Childs Meadow Resort south of Lassen Volcanic National Park. “I needed something to do in the winter, and the ski area hired me as a cook,” he said.
In addition to being CEO of The California Parks Company, Koeberer is president of the California Parks Hospitality Association, and was the first chairman of the State Chamber of Commerce to be from the state’s vast tourism industry. He was a former member of the California Travel and Tourism Commission and received the California Travel Industry Association’s prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2002.
“As a child growing up in the countryside in Sonoma County, my worst fear was someday I might be forced to work behind a desk and not in the great outdoors,” Koeberer said.
He especially loved family camping trips to Manzanita Lake Campground inside Lassen Volcanic National Park.
“I never forgot that beautiful lake, its chipmunks, making s’moresover the campfires, being awed with the mounted rangers patrolling the campgrounds and the wonderful, great, mountainous outdoors surrounding us in all directions,” Koeberer said. “Little did I know I would return as a trails worker in Lassen Park while going to college and then become the concessionaire at that same park for over 35 years. I have truly been blessed to be able to live and work in the childhood environment I cherished the most."