Photo: Heinrich Berann’s classic Yellowstone panorama illustration

By Jason Epperson

The RV Industry Association (RVIA) wants public campgrounds to be improved, and they’re pushing privatization as the answer. The RVIA’s federal affairs team has been lobbying legislators in Washington D.C. and nationwide to invest in campground modernization and expansion projects in federal and state parks for some time now, suggesting that agencies like the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service hand over campgrounds to private concessionaires in order to pay for needed upgrades in services.

Much of the push is related to the $12 Billion maintenance backlog on the National Park Service’s balance sheet — a highly politicized number that may get some relief thanks to a bipartisan bill that funnels dollars from mineral and energy leases on public lands. Most of the backlog does not include campgrounds, however, which RVIA representatives say need to be renovated to handle the massive quantity of motorhomes and trailers that have been sold over the past several years. They’re fighting for longer campsites to accommodate larger RVs, upgrades from 30amp to 50amp service and sewer systems, which aren’t in place at most federal parks.

How can this be accomplished? Privatization is the way to go, according to the RVIA, as well as other outdoor recreation stakeholder businesses. They’re backed by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who said “I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds” last fall, and that “we are going to have more public-private partnerships soon. I think that’s where the industry should be going” at a luncheon with RVIA leadership.

The common argument that private concessionaires are better suited to operate facilities in parks follows the line of thinking that private business is just better at service and sales than the U.S. Government, and streamlined operation will bring in the cash to modernize these facilities. But it’s all a rouse. One only need look towards a campground like Fishing Bridge at Yellowstone to see why. Fishing Bridge is operated by Xanterra, the nation’s largest public lands concessionaire. For years, campers have complained about the lack of maintenance and care at the park, which is slated to undergo a massive renovation next year. No camp hosts roam to greet guests and answer questions. Nobody cleans up sites when campers clear out.

New restrooms are on the docket for the renovation, along with re-graded roads and sites. How are they able to afford it? It’s remarkably simple. They charge a lot of money to camp. The fee to park an RV at Fishing Bridge is $53, double that of most National Park campgrounds. And the facility still won’t offer 50amp service. Xanterra’s 20-year contract requires $135 million in improvements to the 830 buildings, nine hotels with more than 2,000 rooms, and more than 30 foodservice facilities the company manages, along with tours and activities. Xanterra holds a virtual monopoly on Yellowstone visitors, and rakes in about $100 million a year at the park, making the 20-year contract worth about $2 billion – about 1/3 of which comes from just the Fishing Bridge RV Park, according to Yellowstone’s published nightly stay data. In return, the company pays just a 4.5% franchise fee, along with the guaranteed improvements.

But those improvements that Xanterra makes don’t actually belong to the public. Looking towards the south, Xanterra has been operating at the Grand Canyon for over a century – and their lock on the Arizona mega-destination was tested and proven in 2015 when the National Park Service tried to get an increase in the 3.8% royalty. The $200 million in improvements (including employee housing, hotel upgrades, and the like) that Xanterra has made over the years would have to be reimbursed if another concessionaire were to take over — meaning that when it was time to renew the contract, no other vendor was interested in paying the substantial fee. The National Park Service went so far as to buy back $100 million of the improvements before the contract renewal negotiations in 2014, in an attempt to spur other bids. The $200 million dollar stranglehold is worth so much more to Xanterra that, instead of accepting the massive payment, they sued to keep the debt. They lost, and the Park Service borrowed from the budgets of 88 other parks to pay, but the gamble didn’t pay off. No other bids were made and Xanterra kept their contract at a fraction of the royalty the Park Service was looking to garner.

Xanterra doesn’t have a complete grip on the Grand Canyon, however. Delaware North Companies operates various services, including the only RV camping in the park, Trailer Village, which goes for $45 a night. Delaware North fought a battle with Yosemite National Park in 2015 when their contract was up, in which they claimed ownership over historic park names they had trademarked, like “Half Dome,” “Wawona Hotel,” “El Capitan,” even the name “Yosemite National Park” as it appears on merchandise. Delaware North wanted $51 million in order to transfer the trademarks to a new concessionaire if they lost the bid. Aramark ended up winning the bid, and vinyl banners went up over many park locations. The Park Service conceded that Delaware North was owed some money for some of the trademarks they claimed, but placed the value at more like $3 million. So now, the historic Wawona is the “Big Trees Lodge” and the Ahwahnee Hotel is the Majestic Yosemite.

Concessionaire-ran federal campgrounds around the country consistently charge fees comparable to nearby private campground resorts, without the hassle of marketing to potential customers. They don’t even offer the discounted senior citizen and disabled discounts that other federal parks offer. Concessionaires get prime locations in our nation’s treasures, all the profit, and little responsibility. It’s a pretty sweet deal that doesn’t do much to decrease the cost to the taxpayer while lining the pockets of private investors from the lands we pay billions of dollars a year to keep pristine.

Do concessionaires even want to operate all of the National Park Service campgrounds? Of course not. They just want the profitable ones. You won’t see them itching to get their hands on the campgrounds at the remote Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend National Parks, for instance, where annual revenue wouldn’t likely bring 1/50th of what they earn at Yellowstone. Meanwhile, the very nice, modern Watchman Campground facility at Zion National Park is about as premium a location a campground could be in – right in Zion Canyon with the Virgin River running through it. It’s full every night of the season, operated by the National Park Service at $30 a night, $15 for seniors or the permanently disabled.

Low-income families are clearly the ones who are affected the most by privatization, and the idea that campgrounds need to be privatized to accommodate the $500,000 Class A RV owners’ 4 air conditioners should be offensive to all Americans. We need to ask ourselves what public campgrounds are for. Are they a place where people of all stripes can experience the wonders of nature? Or are they a way to reap our miraculous wonders for profit? The RVIA and other outdoor industry organizations are lobbying the federal government for their interests, but is anybody listening to the groups lobbying for the people? Time will tell, but as has been made abundantly clear through Xanterra’s contracts at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, concessionaire contracts on this scale are difficult to reverse.