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?
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.
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.