Wi-fi and food trucks? Welcome to your next national park camping trip

Interior Secretary Zinke pushes for more privately-managed campgrounds despite dubious benefits

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at Yellowstone National Park | Department of the Interior

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — appointed by the president to protect and preserve America’s national parks and public lands — once again showed his true colors last week, shocking Westerners when he called for the privatization of national park campgrounds. With little evidence to suggest that privately-run park facilities are a good deal for either national park lovers or American taxpayers, the Secretary seems to be favoring companies over campers.

Speaking in front of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, Zinke suggested that the Department of the Interior could begin addressing the park service’s $11.9 billion deferred maintenance backlog by outsourcing campgrounds to private concessionaires. In a tip of his hat to the RV industry (and a punch in the gut to park rangers in his own department), the Secretary finished, “My folks will never be as good as you are.”

But recent research by the Center for American Progress suggests that concessionaires don’t necessarily prioritize upkeep over profits. In fact, a close review of the $11.9 billion backlog uncovered $389 million worth of maintenance costs that should be paid by concession companies. Despite being contractually obligated to cover the upkeep of privately-run park facilities, American taxpayers are being saddled with concessionaire responsibilities.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds…. We’ll be looking at where our employees should be spending their time,” Zinke said. “Yes, cleaning the bathrooms. But actually running services, that’s something we should be pushing to somebody who’s updated and knows the market better.”

But New Mexico’s Valles Caldera, a failed experiment in privatized land management, paints a less rosy picture than the Interior Secretary. In the late 1990s, the Valles Caldera was purchased by the federal government and established as a nature preserve to be managed by a local citizen “Trust.” The Trust was given 15 years to reach self-sufficiency.

In an attempt to cover operation costs, the Trust charged steep fees for access to the restricted trail system in the caldera. Visitors were charged $10 per person, per day, per activity (for comparison, most national park units charge between $10 and $20 per vehicle for seven days). The Trust’s effort to turn a profit, or even break even, never came to fruition and steep user fees effectively limited recreational access to publicly-owned land. After years of financial floundering, the Valles Caldera was added to the park system, to be managed by the National Park Service on behalf of the American people.

NASA Technology Transfer Program photo

Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Parks Hospitality Association, has an alarming vision of what national park campgrounds could look like under private management — wireless internet, paved roads, and even food trucks. “It’s such a win-win. It’s a no brainer,” Crandall said.

But a win for who? If national park visitors are priced out of their favorite campgrounds, taxpayers saddled with concessionaire maintenance costs, and quiet sites beloved for their distance from the daily stresses of technology are transformed into hubs of internet connectivity, who wins?

Our national parks are the crown jewels of America’s public lands. Instead of looking to sell out, Secretary Zinke should be investing in the future of the National Park System, to ensure that generations of Americans to come continue to have access to our nation’s greatest landscapes.

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