NPS campgrounds, privatization

Citing that campground infrastructure in America’s national parks, at least in the front country, “fails to meet expectations of the contemporary camping market,” a committee within the Interior Department has recommended the National Park Service privatize campgrounds.

The findings of the Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement Through Reorganization, which can be read here, can best be summarized in the following excerpt from the report:

“Evidence suggests that occupancy rates at many campgrounds could grow and additional services, from WIFI to utilities, equipment rentals and camp stores, food and extended family sites are desired and would substantially boost net agency revenues, especially when operational costs are transferred to private sector partners.”

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The authors of the report envision food trucks serving paying campers, people lining up to rent bikes, skis, boats, maybe fishing gear, upgraded restrooms, larger areas designated for family campsites, glamping options like cabins and fancy tent rentals, and integration of campground experiences with offerings from the surrounding areas so that camping experience is not solely “campground focused.”

They also envision upping the cost for senior visitors by calling for “blackout periods” that would block the 50 percent reduction in campsite fees currently enjoyed by park visitors over the age of 62. Plus, a restriction of senior discounts to camping fees only, not park entrances.

Fees for campground users regardless of age would potentially increase under this privatization proposal regardless of age. Market pricing for various campground fees is suggested, with coordination on pricing with non-NPS campgrounds in surrounding areas, which typically charge more for campsites than public campgrounds.

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Much of the focus of the proposal is meant to erode the billions of dollars in backlogged infrastructure development the national parks need. Secretary David Bernhardt has hinted that finding the money to address that backlog would be easier done through the private sector. The proposal’s authors argue that privatization can inject a modernizing force into campgrounds and attract a diverse and younger user group. Critics fear the creep of privatization of public spaces at the benefit of special interests and the pricing out of low-income Americans.

The memo indicates that after a trial in 5-10 campgrounds, the plan would be fully implemented. It then goes further to suggest the privatization model should expand beyond NPS to campgrounds in public lands managed by other federal agencies.

Yahoo News has reported that Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, is the lead author of the memo. Crandall has already gone on the record arguing that the private sector ought to be in the business of managing campgrounds, not the NPS. The American Recreation Coalition is a group that works on behalf of major concessionaires operating within national parks, like Delaware North and Aramark.

“Why is it inherently a Park Service responsibility to clean toilets, pick up trash and take reservations for campgrounds? Is that something that the agency has a particular expertise on, is it in their wheelhouse?” Crandall said back in 2017, at a conference presided over by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“What the concessioners would say is that they do believe that there is an important role for the Park Service in campgrounds in the future, but that is in the interpretation role, the educational role. It’s not necessarily taking reservations, cleaning bathrooms.”

“Privatizing America’s public campgrounds and jacking up national park fees to appease private concessionaires and powerful corporate campaign donors is just the administration’s latest egregious attempt to rip public lands out of public hands,” said Jayson O’Neill, Western Values Project’s Deputy Director, a conservation advocacy group.

Yahoo also reports that the plan has effectively been approved by necessary personnel and will be endorsed soon by Secretary Bernhardt. The Interior Department, however, counters that they have not formally reviewed the memo and once they have, public comment will be sought.

 


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