What is it that makes a traditional camping experience in a national park unique and memorable? And how does a camping experience in a national park differ from a typical commercial campground or a Walmart parking lot? The differences are significant and important.
First of all, the goal of the commercial campground is profit and return on investment. We believe the goal of the national park campground is to offer a quality visitor experience in the great American outdoors, an important part of a national park visit for millions of people each year.
The fact that the campground is in a national park unit is very appealing. Whether the campsite is at an Eastern seashore or an iconic Western park like, there is a special quality found in the natural environment. Campgrounds in these places have characteristics that allow for a blending of the natural and man-made environments.
National park campgrounds tend to have a lower density – the number of campsites in any given area. And there is typically more distance between campsites in a national park and usually more vegetation and or screening between sites. The NPS has always reminded visitors to use all of their senses while in the park. Listen, smell, feel, see, and hear that which nature provides. That can only be done where intrusions to the natural environment are very limited. 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 NPS campgrounds is the opportunity to interact with a park ranger. You might bump into a ranger at the campground office or speak with the evening interpretive ranger as he or she wanders through the campground at night. And during the evening campfire at a campsite – where campers enjoy wonderful conversations, storytelling and the mesmerizing effect of the warm glow of the flames – these rangers might swing by to point out the gorgeous dark skies or reflect on the tranquility of nature.
All of these elements of the camping experience are important. They build fond family memories and a greater loyalty to the national park experience. Furthermore, a great stay at an NPS campsite contributes to a lasting and positive impression of park rangers and national parks. The resulting public support for the NPS mission, as well as general support for adequate protection and even adequate funding for national parks, is also important, even if not easily measured.
In reviewing the materials related to Managing the Second Century of Campgrounds in the National Park Service, the Coalition was disappointed to see little or no discussion or recognition of the qualities that make a national park camping experience unique. 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 of camping in a national park.
Any campground design standards should include a call for distance (and screening where possible) between sites. Lower rather than higher density of sites should be encouraged. Night sky protective lighting fixtures should be mandated (Acadia, for example, has made great progress on this issue). And every campsite, including tent sights, should have minimal electric service to end the use of noisy generators and conflicts over the restroom electrical outlets.
Camping in a national park is an experience we hope every American can enjoy someday. And we believe that the NPS should strive to maintain those distinctive qualities and higher standards that make it such an incredible opportunity, rather than simply pursue consistency with industry standards. You can read more in this letter we sent to the NPS.
On March 5, 2021, the NPS sent a response to the Coalition which includes some clarifications and a description of how the draft campground development guidelines address our concerns. You can read that letter here.
Sheridan Steele retired as the Superintendent of Acadia National Park & St. Croix Island International Historic Site in 2015 after 38 years with National Park Service. Sheridan is a member of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.