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.


8 Replies to “NPS Campground privatization and other changes”

  1. 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 least of our worries as avid hikers and outdoorspeople.
    I’ll fight like hell to #keepitpublic 🙂

  2. 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.

  3. 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 these Parks and make them available to the masses. I just don’t believe we will ever be able to stop ourselves from making improvement after improvement (change and development) to these parks in an effort to make it easier for those masses to visit.
    Isn’t camping supposed to be a means of escape from all these luxuries?
    I guess the gazillion dollar motor home owner needs a place to go just like the backpacker. Maybe the Parks could charge more $$$ accordingly. Huge motor home, $500.00 a night. Hiker with tent, $3.00 a night.
    I have never camped where there are picnic tables or other people, so I’m not really a good judge of KOA’s and such.

  4. 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 improve my camping experience notably, but it did increase the fee- 35.00 a night. That’s the most I’ve ever spent to camp on a patch of dirt and left what otherwise would have been a pleasant experience relatively soured.

    I’m not inherently anti-technology when it comes to wilderness and camping. But part of camping, even car camping, is roughing it, and giving up some conveniences of modern life.

    Here’s the thing- Record numbers of people are coming to the national park system. Increased appeal in the campsites is *not* something that is necessary. If anything, it’s arguable that the opposite may be needed.

  5. 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. Interesting comments all.

    There are some places, though, that should be seen. The Ancient Puebloan areas come to mind immediately.

    I am not a religious person by any means. But somehow, the ability to watch Hulu while in Chaco Canyon somehow seems to take away from the majesty of the place.

    As Nick said, we are making our National Park units more akin to Disney World.

    I also realize it is a losing battle.

    As Mike said, the BLM and USFS roads near the national park units may be the salvation for dinosaurs like many of us. (Oddly enough, I had a memorable camping trip to Dinosaur National Monument in nearby BLM land. And the NPS ranger was the one who suggested this site!)

    1. I forgot to add my big fear is just what SW stated: Because the private interests are adding “improvements” such as WiFi, they will demand an ROI. So the prices will indeed go up. And the outdoors will continue to skew more towards the affluent.

  7. 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.

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