July 7, 2021
Dear Mr. Caldwell,
We offer these comments as a follow up to our letter of March 9, 2021, regarding the proposed NPS Second Century Campground Strategy. First, we commend the National Park Service (NPS) on the release of the Campground Design Standards that will provide excellent guidance to park managers. The guidelines are well-thought-out, comprehensive, and appropriate to maintaining the high standard of a quality camping experience that people associate with NPS campgrounds.
According to the document, “the impetus of the guide was largely in part to capture the tangible and intangible factors that define the difference between a typical commercial campground and one in a national park.” The guide also states that “All NPS campgrounds are unique and there is no one size that fits all. The guide is intended to help parks make decisions to adapt but still maintain the character of each unique park circumstance.” The Coalition concurs with these statements.
We believe the goal of the NPS campground is primarily offering a high-quality visitor experience in the great American outdoors, which has become an important part of the overall national park visit for many millions of people each year. The NPS Trends Analysis confirms the growing importance of “the Experience Economy” where “in essence, the memory of the experience becomes the product.” And after our collective experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, RV sales and national park visits seem to be soaring, which will assure even greater campsite demand in the future.
Some of the important considerations when planning a new campground or modifications to an existing one are preservation of the natural vegetation and topography, taking advantage of good views, protection of dark skies and natural quiet, and lowering campground density and improving screening between sites. We also agree with the need to expand campsite types (tent, RV, groups, and cabin or glamping as it has come to be known). Increasing camping opportunities for all segments of our population (inclusivity) is both appropriate and important. All campground modifications should be done carefully and in keeping with the great traditions of the national park experience.
Working through a financial analysis can provide valuable insights and add to the planning process, but philosophically we believe NPS-operated campgrounds offer distinctive advantages in terms of the overall visitor experience in national parks. And we have two specific recommendations to further enhance the visitor experience at NPS campgrounds:
- Although not specifically addressed in the guidelines, we believe that the overall experience depends at least in part on opportunities for campers to interact with uniformed park rangers. Engaging with a friendly park ranger whether it be related to campsite registration, visitor orientation, safe visit information, the junior ranger program, volunteering, questions about recreation options, or current interpretive programs. These interactions with a park ranger build public loyalty and support for NPS and should be an essential element in campground planning and management. Public support often translates to political support, which is essential at local, state and federal levels.
- Rather than suggesting that RV sites include electricity, we recommend that it be strongly encouraged to eliminate generator noise and associated complaints allowing campers to enjoy natural sounds or peace and quiet. Commercial campgrounds provide full hook-ups, which would continue to set them apart from NPS campsites with only electrical service. We also would suggest that when modernizing campgrounds, NPS should strongly encourage that each tent site have at least a charging station for personal devices, which would eliminate conflicts at electrical outlets in restrooms and other public buildings. Internet service should be provided at campground offices, visitor centers, and other major visitor facilities rather than at individual campsites.
While this document does not require consideration of concessions management of campgrounds, in general, we strongly oppose conversion of NPS campgrounds to concession operations for several reasons:
- First, under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), NPS can retain campground revenues to offset costs and more importantly, parks will use those revenues to hire uniformed ranger positions. Providing more opportunities for the public to be served by, or interact with park rangers, is vital to maintaining public support for the NPS mission at all levels of government.
- Secondly, the argument that Concession contracts can provide up-front capital investments is less important today given the Great America Outdoors Act that will provide significant annual appropriations for park maintenance, infrastructure and rehabilitation projects. In addition, there are other sources of project funding including the annual NPS construction program.
- Lastly, concession operations are more commercial in nature, with the primary goal of increasing revenues (and therefore profits), while the NPS primary goal is or should be to provide a quality visitor experience and in a more natural setting. Commercial operators are always looking to add sources of revenue (for example sales items or more campsites) and/or cut corners to save money (e.g. fewer or faster restroom cleanings). National Park employees have more flexibility in their roles and can provide better visitor information and assistance whether their title is ranger, laborer or administrative. As former NPS managers, we can say that we trained all of our employees to have both resource protection and visitor service responsibilities no matter their official title. In short, NPS campground staff can provide orientation information, safety messages, promote the Junior Ranger or other interpretive programs, including ranger tours and talks and more, as they go about their routine duties compared to the narrowly focused concessions staff.
All of these elements of the camping experience are important and result in both fond family memories as well as greater loyalty to the national park experience. Furthermore, they contribute to that lasting positive public admiration for park rangers and national parks in general. It is part of the iconic national park family experience to millions of Americans. The resulting public support for our mission as well as general support for adequate protection and even adequate funding for national parks is also important even if not easily measured.
The March 8, 2021, issue of Travel and Leisure Magazine named Acadia’s Schoodic Woods Campground among the “Nine best RV campgrounds in the US.” And USAToday named Schoodic Woods one of the Ten Best campgrounds in the USA. It has also received rave reviews from the thousands of campers who have stayed there since it opened in 2015. Schoodic Woods CG was built and donated by an anonymous donor after the donor purchased 3,200 acres of threatened land next to Acadia. The primary design features that have made it so popular are:
- Sites are 100 feet apart with natural vegetation between them. We believe this separation between sites is one of the most important elements of a high-quality national park camping experience. The landscape architect who designed the campground said the “net density for RV sites is 1.65 campsites per acre and the net density for tent sites is 2.35 sites per acre” (much lower density than the guidelines 11-15 sites per acre).
- Most RV sites are pull through and all are level with 50 amp electrical service.
All tent sites have minimal electrical service that eliminates both generator noise complaints and conflicts over recharging electronics at the restrooms.
- The small ranger station check-in building also serves as a visitor information center.
- The two group campsites are a distance from the main campground to eliminate noise complaints from other campers.
- The group sites share a very attractive shelter building that also has electric service for food prep and other uses.
- All outdoor lighting fixtures are night sky compliant and the amphitheater is located in a natural “bowl” in the campground.
- Some of the nine walk-in sites have great views of the Gulf of Maine, islands and nearby mountains.
- The small maintenance building and campground restrooms (running water/flush toilets) are both very attractive and easy to clean.
- There is a free dump station on the RV loop.
- Each loop has a campground host site with full hookups. A new duplex was built to house campground employees.
- The size of the campground, 94 sites, was determined by the terrain and natural conditions as well as community input (the small town not wanting to be “overrun”)
- NPS Regional Directors visited this campground in 2019 as an example of good campground design.
In conclusion, the NPS Campground Design Standards state “the National Park Service facility improvements strive to find balance in resource protection and visitor enjoyment. As the National Park Service moves into a second century of campground use and design, future development and modernization of campgrounds will maintain the fundamental underpinning components of a traditional campground, while adapting to changing uses, users, and technologies.” We concur with the intent and direction of the standards and we appreciate the opportunity to offer comments based upon on years of experience managing national parks and national park campgrounds.
Chair, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks