NPS Campground privatization and other changes

A free primitive campground in Capitol Reef NP one Thanksgiving.

Wrapping up my last week of being gainfully employed, I listened to another CPR broadcast.  The title of the show amply sums up the issues covered:   National Park Campgrounds Need Work. Is Zinke’s Privatization Pitch The Answer?

I covered a similar topic before. 

With over 11 BILLION dollars in maintenance backlog, the NPS is critically short of funds for needed maintenance, infrastructure improvements, and having the appropriate personnel for to work in the national park units.

Privatizing the campgrounds seems a short term fix for a long term problem.

But what worries me is changing the nature of the National Park experience if (when?) the NPS campgrounds are privatized.

To quote the CPR show:

“Contemporary campers expect a variety of services when they go to a campground,” said Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Parks Hospitality Association and president of the American Recreation Coalition.

Crandall explained that companies can provide much needed upgrades to park campgrounds while adding amenities like food stores, Wi-Fi, and tent rentals. By his estimate, more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. So while it’s great to get them outside for a taste of the lifestyle, Crandall said you “don’t really need to inconvenience them or scare them off.”

The driving force behind these changes is again the National Parks Hospitality Association (NPHA).

I foresee that the long term plans for the NPHA are primarily turning NPS campsites into cheaper lodging alternatives to motel rooms. Or NPS versions of the KOA campgrounds to be a bit more charitable.

I’ve seen the future when I was at Mesa Verde back in 2012. The campground has WiFi, showers, a large store, and laundry.

It was certainly convenient.  But it was not a wilderness experience nor did it feel remote. I did not feel immersed in the area any more than if I had stayed at a Motel 6 in town.

To be fair, Mesa Verde is not a backcountry area nor is it even in remote area like Chaco Canyon.

But where to draw the line? Will every NPS unit be mandated to be more KOA-like and less of the low-key nature of Hovenweep or Chaco?

The NHPA is not lobbying for privatization to preserve the NPS minimum requirements mandate.

It wants to make money off their investment.   Making money is not a terrible thing by any means.

By when making money by changing the nature of the overall NPS experience, I will question the wisdom of this action.

A KOA-like experience will make the NPS campgrounds more competitive. And will encourage more people to stay there. More profits will be made for the NHPA run campgrounds. And, if past experience is any guide, the rates charged by NHPA will go up as well. The National Park experience will become even more a luxury for the affluent, perhaps.

There are already plans to have NPS units with WiFi by 2018.  People want connectivity.  With work lives and leisure time activities blurring, a WiFi connection is almost mandated even when on “vacation.”  And people want to be able to check in on a constant basis. Then there is the chestnut that increased connectivity means (perceived) safety of park visitors.

I recognize these trepidatious thoughts are rear guard actions. And I’ve written about these ideas in more detail before.

With the outright privatization of NPS campgrounds on the horizon, these trends will just accelerate.

Where even the national park backcountry connected in many, or even most, cases, a little bit of wildness is lost.

And will never come back.

Oh, I am sure the WiFi, showers, laundry, and campground store will be used by me in the years ahead.  I may be a bit of romantic, but it is leavened by practicality that is a family trait.

I just lament that the Mesa Verde luxuries will become the new normal and the expectation.    And part of the National Park experience will be lost. A remote area becomes merely a little more rustic and less expensive alternative to a Motel 6.

I can always consult my atlas and maps. And find a pocket of wildness.

But those pockets are becoming increasingly fewer in number.  And, based on the continuing trends, looks like the National Parks will be even a rarer part of these less and less common wild spaces.

For a deeper look at these National Park Service issues, I suggest reading Uncertain Path: A search for the future of national parks by William C. Tweed.

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6 years ago

Good post! Like our public infrastructure, our public lands are chronically underfunded, purposefully so. Once the road to privatization starts, we’ll never get it back. Give em an inch and they’ll take a mile. They know that too. They have a very effective strategy… underfund it, let it go to s***, then swoop in as a rescuer, and keep it forever. The Zinke types are philosophically opposed to public ownership. Once the profit motive is in place it’ll become more expensive overnight as profit becomes more important than anything else. If Zinke’s plans go through privatized campgrounds will be the… Read more »

Nick Gatel
6 years ago

Bah! Humbug! Not your post, but the degradation of our public lands and abandonment of preserving the ecological and historic significance of these places. We need to change the NPS name to the National Amusement Park Service.

6 years ago

I read the linked article from CPR. The picture isn’t what I would call “camping”. That is hanging out in a campground with a lot of other people. I may be in the extreme minority but I lean heavily towards the Edward Abbey mindset. In the sacred area’s that are our National Parks, a line be drawn. No vehicles other than Parks Department vehicles shall be allowed to cross. If you want Wifi, TV and laundry machines, these can be available outside the park and readily available once people return to their vehicles. I know it is costly to maintain… Read more »

6 years ago

Los Padres National Forrest a year or so ago secretly arranged to turn over campsites to a concessionaire to run. Prices went up. In some cases, from free, or 5 dollars a night, to 30 a night. Most prices doubled. The idea of turning over all the NPS campgrounds to development is a terrible idea. I can easily see 50-75 dollar a night campsites for the sake of on-site showers and wifi. I remember hitting Burney Falls a few years ago and they had most of the development that is discussed in the article and the CPR article. It didn’t… Read more »

Mike Johnson
Mike Johnson
6 years ago

Boomers are retiring,getting that huge Class A, and pulling into all the NPGC’s and spend most of their time watching their 60″ flat screens and hardly step outside. Consesionairs see a new market for retirees with discretionary money and it has nothing to do with a camping experience.
I for one don’t mind rutted washboard roads to primative campground without the amenities,

6 years ago

Just read Desert Solitaire. Amazing how relevant Edward Abbey’s comments are still today.

I’m all for ideas that make the outdoors more accessible for all (i.e tent rentals, even though you can probably buy one cheaper at Walmart) but laundry and Wi-Fi certainly do not belong. Only a few places should have showers, though it would occassionally be nice to have outdoor rinse-off stations like at the beach.