National Park Campers Voice Strong Objections To Commercializing More Campgrounds

There is little support among National Parks Traveler readers for commercializing more national park campgrounds and adding WiFi, food trucks, and other amenities.

While an advisory committee to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is calling for such upgrades on a trial basis, strong opposition was voiced both on Traveler’s flagship website as well as its social media channels.

“The National Park System is America’s Best Idea. Upgrading the campgrounds to the point of destroying their natural wonder is the worst idea,” Jesse Joksch wrote on Traveler’s Facebook page. “For me, I go to the parks to enjoy nature, incredible scenery, and the food I cook while I am there. Only thing I would add is more tent sites. Can be very difflicult to find camping inside the parks these days.”

Jo Fulk added that, “The reason why we stay in state and national parks is to get away from phones, technology, the rat race! What happened to leave no trace? What’s the point of going if you’re staring at a machine instead of potential endangered wildlife and the wild expanse? How about updating what’s already there- trails, staffing, the basics?”

More than 450 comments have been made on Traveler’s story on a draft proposal to bring more amenities to national park campgrounds and to let for-profit companies try to show how park campgrounds could be better managed. The proposal also calls for blocking Senior Pass holders, those 62 an older who hold a lifetime pass that entitles them to 50 percent savings on campsite fees, during peak seasons.

“I do know absolutely that today’s campers are more urban in background than they were 20 or 30 years ago, and in many cases are looking for greater support,” said Derrick Crandall, who worked with Interior’s Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement Through Reorganization in drafting the proposal. “They do want WiFi. They do want some food options. What we’re saying is we think there is a strategy to deal with providing food in a campground as opposed to telling people that they basically have to go out of a park to a gateway community to find dinner and come back.”

Not all comments opposed such upgrades.

“Food trucks? That’s a great idea especially for tent campers. Don’t have to worry about keeping perishables cold day after day,” wrote Kevin Kaitis. “Put in a food truck at campsites, even if it’s just once a day, and they will have happy customers. Would not use it for every meal.”

Linda Tyler was in favor of upgrades.

“Many parks were built before the days of class A’s or any camper with slide outs especially in the Northeast,” she wrote. “Plus the turns are not wide enough for the larger campers be they towable or Class A or C’s. WiFi never works beans at any campground so that is not a big deal. If going to have it a solid signal you can use at one larger room in office would be a big help. Would rather have a great signal there than a weak one all over the park.

“Also some parks were made with no sense of people need to be able to get whatever they are coming with other than a small pop up level!!!” she added. “Even people in tents would like a level place to put them. Scary when you see some with wheels totally off the ground. More people are hurt climbing in and out of their campers than any other way and the inability to get level can cause a big problem getting in and out of your camper.”

In a comment on the Traveler website, Bill from Montana expressed an opinion that surfaced quite a bit on Traveler’s Facebook page.

“WiFi in national park campgrounds? No way! Keep national park campgrounds primitive, and focus on the natural beauty,” he wrote. “Already, most national park campgrounds cater too much to RVs, to the detriment of us tent campers. They allow generators, etc.  If people want WiFi, food trucks and such, they should stay at a KOA, not in a national park.  And I fully agree with commenters above who say that RV folks should pay more in national parks than tent campers. I have long suspected that we tent campers were subsidizing RV folks.”

There are campgrounds across the National Park System that already are operated by private companies, as opposed to Park Service staff. But turning more over to for-profit companies is not as easy as proposing it, said Phil Francis, who spent more than four decades with the National Park Service, with stints as superintendent of both the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Francis, who now heads the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said that as superintendent of those two park properties he did consider turning campgrounds over to the private sector, but came away convinced that that wasn’t the best move.

During his time at the Blue Ridge Parkway, he said, the neighboring national forest had a campground that was managed by a nonprofit friends group.

“When I went down to take a look at it, ‘Let’s take a fair review of this to see if it’s something that we want to do,’ I found out pretty quickly when talking to the management of the national forest that the concessionare was unwilling to make the kind of capital investments that needed to be made, and so the burden remained with the national forest,” he said.

The proposal heading to Secretary Bernhardt suggests that concessionaires be encouraged to tackle some of the deferred maintenance needs that exist in campgrounds by ensuring they would be repaid by subsequent concessionaires if they ever lost, or surrendered, the campground management contract. But this sort of “leaseholder surrender interest” could turn problematic.

Back in 2015 Traveler reported that the National Park Service was sitting on an estimated half-a-billion-dollars of obligations owed concessionaires who run lodges, restaurants, and even some activities for the investments made into their operations. At the time, Park Service officials said that dollar figure was manageable, though it had seemingly stifled concessions competition in some parks and led the agency to divert tens of millions of dollars from some parks to others to reduce the debts.

The ramifications of carrying such large sums on the books has been most evident at Grand Canyon National Park, where the Park Service had failed to see robust competition for its South Rim concessions. The agency in 2014 had to scrape up nearly $50 million from dozens of parks, along with $25 million from the Washington headquarters and $25 million from Grand Canyon National Park, in a $100 million attempt to make a long-term concessions contract for the South Rim more palatable to bidders.

Certainly, costs with running a campground don’t equate to those of operating lodges that are decades old. But with deferred maintenance costs in the campgrounds estimated at nearly $332 million, and some of that tied to expensive water treatment systems, needed investments are substantial.

Francis said that during his stint at Great Smoky Mountains they looked into adding showers to some campgrounds, but soon discovered they couldn’t discharge the added grey water into the park’s rivers.

The Park Service veteran also pointed out that there are several laws on the books that would have to be negotiated before campgrounds could be turned over to businesses. Those laws, said Francis, require competitive bidding if the Park Service decided to turn campgrounds over to private businesses.

“You really need to have in place a contract. And in order to have a contract, you have to go through competition,” he said. “And one of the challenges has been since the 1998 Concessions law was passed, when you require or allow a concessionaire to make an investment, then that becomes part of (leaseholder surrender interest). That money, at the end of the term, either goes forward, if it’s the same concessionaire, or you have to buy them out before awarding it to a new concessionaire. That has been a challenge throughout the whole park system.”

A challenge going forward will be whether the National Park Service seeks public comment if a move is made towards commercializing more campgrounds with an eye towards more amenities that businesses can charge for.