Budget cuts may force private operation of federal campgrounds


WASHINGTON — America’s national parks have breathtaking vistas and iconic attractions like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser in Wyoming.

But recreational vehicle owners and outdoor enthusiasts say maintenance and improvement of the parks’ campgrounds are sadly lacking and have not kept up with digital-era needs such as wi-fi service.

“Especially with younger people,” said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. “They want to share” their experiences and scenery on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Baby boomers, who are rapidly retiring and taking to the road in RVs, are likewise calling for upgrading of federal campgrounds to accommodate their technical need for electricity hookups to run air conditioners and television sets.

The RV industry reports retirees and adventuresome millennials have contributed to record production of RVs in Elkhart County, Indiana, the capital of RV manufacturing, and elsewhere. More than 472,000 RVs are projected to be manufactured this year.

The organization said this good economic news is evidence of the urgent need to modernize and maintain the national park campgrounds.

The problem is money. The National Park Service reports it has $11.3 billion in improvement projects backlogged at the same time President Donald Trump proposes cutting $322 million from the agency’s annual $3 billion budget.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department oversees the Park Service, has said the government can’t come up with funds for eliminating the entire backlog much less offer new amenities.

Instead, Zinke proposes outsourcing the management of the campgrounds to private companies, reducing labor and maintenance costs in the process.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke told a meeting of the RV Industry Association in early June.

The Park Service now contracts with private companies to provide services to some of its campgrounds, but the vast majority are managed by the agency’s employees, including park rangers for security and assistance.

Zinke has in mind expanding so-called public-private partnerships, where the Park Service would still own the land and set the rules but private companies would operate, manage and make improvements to the campgrounds. The companies would recover some of their costs with user fees, which are now charged at some, but not all, federal campgrounds.

John Gardner, budget director of the advocacy National Parks Conservation Association, worries outsourcing will result in higher fees that could make the parks unaffordable to campers on a tight budget or with limited means.

“The reality is private companies need to make a profit,” said Gardner. “If they’re going to increase the amenities at a campsite, that’s going to cost them money. They’re going to charge more to customers. That’s how it works.”

Garner’s association is an independent organization of 1.2 million members, some of them former national park employees. The group’s mission is to “protect and enhance America’s national park system for present and future generations.”

Heather Swift, spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said the Park Service now contracts with private companies to run 27 campsites in 20 national parks. Expanding the program, she added, would “allow our park rangers to focus on things like land management and interpretive services.”

A General Accounting Office report in February indicated public-private partnerships can be profitable for the government. The report included the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park in Montana as an example.

The hotel opened in 1915, five years after the park’s creation. In recent years, it has negotiated 488 contracts with private companies to provide a range of management and vendor services, generating about $104 million per year in revenue for the Park Service.

The U.S. Forest Service, which separately controls 3,005 campgrounds around the country, has turned over the majority of their operation and management to private entities. Nearly all of them charge user fees.

The American Recreation Coalition, an outdoor industry group, encourages public-private partnerships to operate federal campgrounds, said spokesman Ben Nasta.

“There are already partnerships all over the country,” effectively running federal campgrounds, he said. Broadening the scope of the program would help address the need for improvements, he added.

Nicole Gentile, deputy public lands director for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the Trump Administration’s plan to reduce federal spending on national parks shows the president isn’t concerned about the consequences.

The Park Service estimated Trump’s budget cut would eliminate 6.4 percent, or 1,242 of its work force, when visitors to national parks and campgrounds are soaring, reaching a record high of 324 million last year.

National parks would have to close some campgrounds and reduce the hours of operation of others if Congress goes along with the president’s plan, the Park Service budget analysis concluded.

Furthermore, Gentile said, outsourcing management of national park facilities to private companies doesn’t guarantee long-needed improvements will be made.

A study she authored in February examining the Park Service’s backlog of projects found a third of the improvements were required in park hotels, gift shops and restaurants operated by outside companies.

Gentile said she has urged the Interior Department to make sure the companies are fulfilling the terms of their contracts to maintain the facilities they manage.

The National Parks Conservation Association said it supports legislation in Congress to allocate royalties from oil and gas drilling on federal park land to a fund dedicated to the Park Service’s improvement projects backlog.

A bipartisan bill to do that has been introduced in the House, but so far it has received little attention. Sponsors include Democrat Reps. Derek Kilmer of Washington and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, and Republican Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Dave Reichert of Washington.

Still, Warren Meyer, president of the private company Recreation Resource Management, said the Park Service can save money and improve services at campgrounds by contracting with companies who specialize in private operation of public parks.

Meyer said companies like his with expertise in running campgrounds can hire lower-wage workers to do routine tasks such as cleaning toilets and picking up debris, rather than assigning these maintenance jobs to park rangers.

He said concerns about commercializing the parks are exaggerated; that the Park Service sets the rules for what’s allowed under private operation.

“If they want us to run a pristine campground,” said Meyer, “we’re not going to put a McDonald’s there.”

Contact reporter Kery Murakami at kmurakami@cnhi.com.

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