March 9, 2021
Dear Acting Director Benge,
On behalf of over 1,900 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service (NPS), I am writing to provide the Coalition’s concerns related to the NPS Second Century Campground Strategy.
Coalition members collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and historic resources. They include a full array of retired park leaders and professionals, including those with experience managing some of our nation’s largest and busiest campgrounds.
In reviewing the materials related to Managing the Second Century of Campgrounds in the National Park Service, we were disappointed by the lack of discussion regarding the qualities of a national park camping experience; those tangible and intangible factors that make all the difference between a typical commercial campground and a national park.
The goal of a national park campground is to offer a memorable and quality visitor experience in the great outdoors. Whether the park is a seashore on the East Coast or an iconic western place like Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain, there is a unique value inherent to staying in a natural environment. Campgrounds in these places have characteristics that allow for a blending of the natural and man-made yet limit the intrusions to the natural environment. These campgrounds tend to have a lower density and provide more distance and screening between sites. Too much ambient sound or light affects the experience. Too much development limits the natural feel of a place and intrudes on the natural views.
Of equal importance at national park campgrounds is the opportunity for interaction with a park ranger, often part of the iconic national park experience to millions of Americans. A greeting from the ranger at the campground office or a discussion with the evening interpretive ranger wandering through the campground can contribute to lasting positive public admiration for park rangers and national parks in general. The downstream impacts include public support for the mission of the NPS, as well as general support for adequate protection and even funding for national parks.
National Park campgrounds have a unique challenge; to attract visitors who desire technology and convenience items while maintaining a traditional visitor experience. Amenities such as showers, wi-fi, game rooms, electric hookups, and bigger camp sites to address larger RVs have been suggested by the hospitality industry and been part of the discussion for years. But these amenities cannot come at the expense of the traditional visitor experience. The focus should be on the enjoyment of the parks as opposed to the amenities themselves.
We are concerned that the draft campground design standards do not address the natural qualities and other distinctive elements of the traditional national park camping experience described above. We are concerned that too much emphasis will be placed on operating costs and other financial aspects without acknowledging and preserving the non-monetary values that make the national park camping experience unique.
We believe that any campground design standards should include:
- Distance between sites and screening where possible
- Lower rather than higher density of sites
- Night sky protective lighting fixtures
- Minimal electric service at as many campsites (including tent sites) as possible to help end the use of noisy generators and conflicts over the restroom electrical outlets
We strongly believe that the National Park Service should strive to maintain the distinctive qualities and higher standards that are emblematic of a national park experience rather than pursue consistency with industry standards – and risk losing all that makes our campgrounds unique.
Chair, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks