RV industry lobbies to privatize services on public lands

And they have found an ally in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

 

A family heading to Yellowstone National Park this summer to sleep amid the geysers and grizzlies had lots of choice in accommodations. They could throw up a tent on a simple campsite without flush toilets for less than $20 a night. Campgrounds with full RV hookups, showers and bathrooms would cost $24 to $47. Cabins and rooms around Old Faithful, while much pricier, offer easy access to restaurants, stores, cell service and Wi-Fi.

Beyond the upgraded amenities, a difference the park-visiting family might not have noticed is who was running those campsites and cabins. The National Park Service manages the basic campgrounds, while Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a private concessionaire, operates the more developed campgrounds and lodges, food services, gift shops and guide outfits — all the services, in other words, that are well positioned to turn a profit.

Turning over campgrounds and other services to private companies is a common — and somewhat controversial — practice in popular national parks, and even many well trafficked national forests. And it may soon become even more ubiquitous, bringing changes that could alter the natural settings of campgrounds and public lands.

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has begun steering the department that oversees our national parks, the RV and parks-hospitality industries appear to have their hands on the wheel. This July, Zinke announced the creation of the Made in America Recreation Advisory Committee. The group, made up primarily of representatives from the concession and RV industries, will advise Zinke and Interior staff on the expansion of public-private partnerships in national parks and recreation areas. Its members are already pushing for more privately run lodges and campgrounds, as well as additional internet and cellphone coverage.

“We have been knocking on (Zinke’s) door and saying, ‘We have some great ideas, will you listen, please?’” says Derrick Crandall, a leader of the group who also heads the National Parks Hospitality Association, the industry lobbying group for park concessionaires, and the American Recreation Coalition, which advocates for public-private partnerships. “We are excited.”

But parks advocacy groups are concerned about the potential for widespread privatization of public lands and resources. They warn that would lead to higher access fees, and development that could make public lands feel more like commercial resorts. “What do we want our national park experience to be like?” asks Mark Butler, who worked 34 years at Yosemite National Park, and now represents the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “Do you want visitors to connect with a Park Service ranger and the resource or to have a more commercialized experience?”

Recreational vehicles at Fishing Bridge, a RV-only camping area in Yellowstone National Park run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Jim Peaco/National Park Service

National parks relied on private operators to run lodges, general stores and hospitality services even before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Railroads built the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone and the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park.

Today, the Park Service has more than 500 concession contracts. The contractors — from small guide businesses to huge service companies like Aramark and Xanterra — serve meals, make beds and run campgrounds, groceries and marinas. They pay $150 million in fees annually to the Park Service, and earn more than $1 billion in sales.

Crandall says that private operators specializing in campground management and hospitality services are better suited to respond to the demands of visitors, who increasingly want access to Wi-Fi and cell service, cabins, and toilets and showers at campgrounds. Crandall and his allies are also eager to cater to the country’s growing number of RV travelers. Americans bought a record-setting 430,000 RVs in 2016, he says, but the parks don’t really serve them well. While overall visitation keeps increasing, overnight RV stays in national parks have declined since the late 1980s, which Crandall says is due to the lack of upgrades, such as space and electric hookups for large RVs.

These aren’t new priorities for the industry, but Crandall’s groups and others are being heard clearly and often by Zinke and other Trump administration officials. This January, the RV industry and other manufacturers and retailers of boats, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and outdoor gear and apparel officially formed the Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable to promote private business on public lands. The members of Zinke’s new advisory committee are all part of the group.

And Zinke appears willing — even eager — to turn over the keys to them. “I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke said during a June meeting with RV industry reps. “My folks will never be as good as you are.” Since January, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assocation (RVIA) has met at least three times with Zinke or senior Interior staff. Zinke also spent April 24 with Crandall, according to Interior calendars obtained by the Washington Post. RVIA, meanwhile, has proclaimed Zinke to be a long-time friend of the RV industry (who) owns a 38’ Newmar Class A motorhome.”

Roundtable leaders have also met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is overseeing a financial analysis of the outdoor recreation industry’s overall contributions to the U.S. economy. The group hopes the government will measure outdoor recreation activities based on spending and tax revenue, which would bolster the case for directing taxpayer dollars into larger campgrounds, wider, paved roads, and marinas, which are often operated by concessionaires.

Not everyone believes privatization is positive for parks, however. “The solution is not to privatize, but to adequately fund the National Park Service so it can meet the demands that our current record setting levels of visitation are causing,” says Mark Butler, a retired Park Service official.

Besides, the benefits private contractors bring to the table aren’t as clearcut as Zinke and the industry make them out to be. For instance, federal agencies are required to use taxpayer dollars to pay for major improvements, even at privately run campgrounds. According to the Center for American Progress, $389 million of the Park Service’s maintenance backlog represents repairs needed at privately run facilities. And after those improvements are completed with public dollars, contractors still raise visitors’ fees.

Meanwhile, when the company Delaware North lost its hospitality contract in Yosemite in 2016, it sued the government, claiming it owned the trademarks to lodge names and even “Yosemite National Park” and a logo of Half Dome used on t-shirts and merchandise. The Park Service ended up spending $1.7 million to update signs with new names and logos around the park.

“If the National Park Service is appropriately funded it can provide extremely high-quality, unparalleled services,” Butler argues. He adds that, “it’s really important for visitors to national parks to have their experiences connected with the public land managers,” through interacting with public servants like rangers at campgrounds and other facilities.

Zinke, with the RV and concessionaires on his side, clearly disagrees. In addition to courting the industry, he has aggressively reassigned dozens of senior officials at Interior, a maneuver many see as a shakeup targeting agency staff who share Butler’s views about public service and resources.

That kind of culture change — rooting out staff who support limited privatization and see things like campground management as part of the Park Service’s mission — is as crucial as any forthcoming policies to expand private contracts, says Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, a campground concessionaire. Meyer is dubious the Trump administration has the influence with career staff — or the attention span — to achieve such change. But if they do, the industry is ready to help. “There is an enormous opportunity to have private companies come in and manage the things they can manage without changing the character of these parks,” Meyer says.

Correspondent Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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