Supply & Demand: Factor in Camping Permit Scalping

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April 21, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Sunset over Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Editor's Note: The following column was written by Mark Warszawski and appeared in The Fresno (Calif.) Bee.

These old, fried brain cells don't retain much from their college days, but they do recall walking into the first day of economics class and seeing two words written on the chalkboard.

Supply and demand.

The value of any product, the professor explained, is determined by the price someone is willing to pay. And if there's limited supply of a product that's in high demand, then market forces will always drive up the price.

Thank goodness I didn't doze off that day. Because then I wouldn't be able to make sense of the latest brouhaha at Yosemite National Park, where ticket scalping and price gouging are becoming as much a part of the experience as gushing waterfalls and soaring cliffs.

Campsite reservations and hiking permits for Half Dome are in such high demand that profiteers are selling them on the Internet to the highest bidder or at several times their intended value. On Craigslist, campsites that normally go for $20 a night are priced at $100 to $150.

Furthermore, these profiteers are becoming sophisticated. They've devised automated programs to circumvent the park's online reservation system, snapping up most of the campsites and permits the millisecond they become available.

Deluged with complaints from frustrated campers and hikers, park officials say they are investigating. But even if they catch one of these price-gougers, what legally can be done?

Last time I checked, oil speculating wasn't illegal either.

That's not a perfect analogy because access to national parks is supposed to be equal for all Americans, not just an unscrupulous few. The park service has a responsibility to combat these bozos, either by making campsite reservations nontransferrable or holding a lottery for Half Dome permits similar to what the Inyo National Forest does for Mount Whitney.

But unless folks decide one day to stop camping and hiking in Yosemite — fat chance of that — or refuse to let themselves be bilked, then the forces that created this problem will continue to exist.

And it goes back to that first day of economics class: supply and demand.

More than 4 million people visited Yosemite last year, the highest number since 1996. That's the demand.

Yet thanks to park service policy, there are fewer places to camp and fewer opportunities to tackle Yosemite's most iconic hike. That's the supply.

See how it works?

In 1996, there were more than 800 campsites in Yosemite Valley. Then came the flood of 1997, which closed of more than 300 of them.

Fifteen years later, those campsites still sit empty, eliminated by the 2000 Yosemite Valley Plan that closed three campgrounds near the Merced River and large portions of a fourth. (Yet another campground, North Pines, is scheduled for closure.)

In truth, campground scalping at Yosemite has been going on for years. It just didn't get much attention until the same thing started happening on Half Dome. Now it's a double whammy.

Park officials had several options to address growing concerns over visitor safety on the Half Dome cables. They could have erected another row of cables and created up and down "lanes" that surely would ease congestion without impacting the area's wilderness character any more than it already is.

Instead, they chose to limit access to 400 people per day, seven days a week — even though the park's own 2008 study showed that more than twice that number attempted the hike on any given day.

Did park officials think the demand for standing atop Half Dome would simply go away? Or were they naive enough to believe no one would try to profit from the reduced supply?

If so, someone must've slept through economics class.

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