A Closer Look at the Sequestration/RV Parks
When the much-feared federal government’s sequestration went into effect on March 1, Jimmy Felton was fit to be tied.
The owner of the Misty River Campground in Townsend, Tenn., a 72-site campground on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wasn’t certain of his park’s immediate future, thanks to the sequestration (or sequester) which brought forth several campground closings in the nearby national park and numerous other cutbacks across all federally owned lands.
Felton, who also is president of the Tennessee Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, stated, “The campgrounds in Tennessee will be happy to accommodate everybody looking for a camping spot. We still want you to enjoy your vacation. If Uncle Sam doesn’t want you in their campgrounds, we would love for you to come to ours.”
Felton was undoubtedly speaking for all private campground owners in the U.S., both those located near national parks as well as those located on popular routes leading to the national lands who stood to lose business if fewer travelers make their ways to the federal lands this spring and summer.
“In two weeks this will probably be over with,” he said with a tone of optimism. “The lucky part for us in Tennessee, we’re in the off-season. Until springtime, this (cutbacks) won’t affect us much. If this is still going on Memorial Day weekend, that may be different.”
“The main problem is none of the politicians on either side (party) are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re behaving like spoiled little kids. If private industry worked like the government, we’d all be in trouble,” he said.
Across the outdoor hospitality industry, others may not have been as upset as Felton as they saw sequestration join the list of factors, such as a tepid economic recovery and unseasonably high gas prices, that could bite into the coming camping season. But there was still concern.
Max Hammer, owner of Beaver Lake Campground in Custer, S.D., was preparing for the opening of his 2013 season on March 15 and was hopeful the sequestration would be a non-factor.
His 99-site park is located in the Black Hills in the southwest corner of the state, in the shadow of Mount Rushmore National Monument and within a 90-minute drive of four other national parks or monuments.
“A great deal of our guests come to the Black Hills because of the national parks. If people are concerned about national parks being open, they will direct their summer trips somewhere else, like the Wisconsin Dells or Branson, which would affect our park,” he speculated.
“According to my source at Mount Rushmore, who was allowed to speak freely, there will be no impact at our five state/region federal parks until about May 1st. Park managers are then planning scaling back elective or proposed programs equal to funding. The public will not see a difference. Rather, they will see 2012 again,” Hammer told Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM).
“The word ‘closed’ will not be used in any fashion for any facility. Hours of operation may be shortened, ranger-led programs may not be scheduled as often and tour times may not be as often for smaller facilities such as the Minuteman Missile Site,” he explained.
“In this scenario,” Hammer concluded, “I do not fear the sequester – I welcome it. I do fear the mainstream media hype to a ‘sky is falling’ scenario.”
As the sequestration surfaced, Hammer was anticipating a good season.
“Reservations are very strong. Our campground is starting to develop into quite a destination. Half of our traffic is repeats, returns and referrals,” he said.
Traffic counts were up around 5% in 2012 across the state and he anticipated a good year in 2013 as well.
“Everybody has settled into higher fuels prices and getting used to it,” he said. In fact, he predicted that traffic counts “will remain the same or grow a little more statewide, even if there are reductions in National Park Service (NPS) services.”
At his park he made many improvements for the coming season to better serve his guests, some of whom stop there on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park.
Impact Around Yellowstone National Park Could be Huge
RV parks and campgrounds located at or near the gateways to Yellowstone National Park were still closed for the season when WCM tried to reach them and thus unavailable for comment, but the impact could be considerable there.
Yellowstone Park managers have to trim $1.75 million from Yellowstone’s $35 million annual budget, which will delay the opening of most entrances to America’s first national park by two weeks.
Local tourism industry leaders are not happy with the decision, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. A delay in the park’s traditional early May opening and other service reductions could mean millions of dollars in lost tourism and tax revenues for small, rural towns in Montana and Wyoming.
“I think it’s counterproductive, and I expect a lot of people to be raising hell,” said Mike Darby, whose family owns the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody, Wyoming, at the east gate of Yellowstone.
A two-week delay in Yellowstone’s opening means Cody will miss out on more than 150,000 visitors spending an estimated $2.3 million, according to figures released by the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. Similar shortfalls in four other gateway towns around the park could put total losses from a two-week delayed opening at more than $10 million.
Plenty of Camping Options In California
Debbie Sipe, executive director of the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC), said she anticipates the sequester could help CalARVC parks located near national lands.
“We suspect those parks will see an increase in reservations more because of the uncertainty the consumer sees rather than what reality might be,” she said, meaning that campers may gravitate toward private parks out of the assumption that campgrounds on federal lands are closed.
“One of our biggest fears is just the bad publicity. The public hears ‘Campgrounds Closed at National Parks’ and to be honest, the average person doesn’t know the difference between a national park, a state park and a private park. We were concerned about that last year when the California state parks were going to close. That’s just negative press the consumer sees and concludes, ‘We’ll go to Disneyland this year instead.’”
The reality Sipe and CalARVC are stressing as the sequester begins is that there are “plenty of camping options” at the 800 commercial campgrounds in California.
Kevin Fallon, owner of the 99-site Crescent City KOA near Crescent City, Calif., agrees with Sipe’s conclusion. Fallon’s park is within walking distance of Redwood National Park, and he sees the sequester as a double-edged sword.
“Some of that business will come our way,” he says, speculating that as campers are deterred from finding sites to camp in the national park, they’ll turn to private parks like Fallon’s.
His park features some 10 acres of redwoods, so campers who want to see redwoods might as well come to his park anyway, he reckons. He frequently turns away campers during the peak season when the national park and an adjoining state park are bursting with tourists.
“But as time progresses and budgetary restraints remain in place, then it will affect the national park’s ability to attract and serve guests, which WILL affect our county and the area,” Fallon said. “If the public perception is there is no money to maintain a reasonable level of services for people who desire to come to this area and camp, they’ll probably look somewhere else.”
The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) issued a statement on March 6, stating that it was working alongside the U.S. Travel Association and others on several fronts to develop a strategy to help end this man-made crisis. The coalition is:
- Engaging media to voice the travel industry’s concerns.
- Communicating directly with Congressional offices to inform them of the deep impact the sequester will have on travelers and its ripple in the economy.
- Activating a grassroots mobile messaging campaign that easily bridges frustrated travelers with lawmakers.
- Developing economic research to paint a picture of the realities stemming from these reductions.
ARVC further stated that it was aggressively engaging with media outlets aimed at both policymakers and the public. Statements from the Travel Association on the sequester have already received widespread media coverage. The association is also considering select advertisements to highlight the impact of the sequester on travelers and to ask Congress to “Draw the Line” – travelers have waited long enough.
ARVC also stated that it was communicating directly with Congressional offices, particularly those in districts where travel has a particularly strong economic effect, informing them of the deep impact the sequester will have on American travelers and its broader effect across the economy.
ARVC members were also invited to the National Issues Conference for an opportunity to meet face-to-face with Congress.
The Unkindest Cuts of All
Skeptics might have seen the sequester coming.
The White House first proposed the sequestration plan in 2011 to avoid a debt limit debate. A reluctant Congress went along with the administration’sU proposal. President Barack Obama signed it into law and even threatened to veto other proposals aimed at averting these cuts.
Back in 2011, few lawmakers, if any, thought deep and indiscriminate spending cuts, totaling about $85 billion and now starting to kick in, were a smart idea.
The across-the-board cuts, set up as a last-resort trigger and based on a mechanism used in the 1980s, became a reality largely because President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed to find a way to stop them.
Republicans, influenced by Tea Party and other conservative factions, insisted on just spending cuts to narrow the deficit. Tax increases were out.
Obama and the Democratic-run Senate didn’t budge from a mix of cuts and increased tax revenues.
Despite the administration’s barnstorming tour days before the March 1 deadline, Congress could not reach a compromise.
Department of Interior officials who oversee the national parks dispensed a laundry list of cutbacks at all 397 national parks, forests and recreation areas.
Across the entire park system, 900 permanent positions that currently are vacant will not be filled, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said March 8 in a memo to the entire agency.
“In an organization with 15,000 permanent employees, 900 vacant jobs have a profound effect. Every activity will be affected. Some impacts will be immediate, others will accumulate over time,” Jarvis said. “Fewer law enforcement rangers and USPP (United States Park Police) officers mean lower levels of protection and longer response times. Fewer maintenance personnel mean that parks may have to close facilities completely when breakdowns occur – and that the $12 billion maintenance backlog will continue to grow.”
Among the specific announced cutbacks were these:
- Blue Ridge Parkway will cut 21 seasonal interpretive ranger programs, resulting in the closure of 50% of its visitor centers and contact stations. Eliminating seven stations will put 80 miles between open facilities along the parkway, reducing the interpretive information available to visitors.
- Gettysburg National Military Park will eliminate 20% of its Student Education Programs this spring, canceling field trips for 2,400 students.
- Glacier National Park will delay the reopening of Going-to-the-Sun Road by two weeks. Previous closures of the road resulted in lost revenue for surrounding communities and concessions of $1 million per day, a potentially devastating blow to businesses that depend on the park for tourism dollars.
- Mount Rainier National Park will close its Ohanapecosh Visitor Center permanently, eliminating this resource for 60,000-85,000 visitors annually.
- Grand Canyon National Park will delay the seasonal opening of its East and West Rim Drives, and reduce hours of operation at the main visitor center – impacting a quarter of a million visitors.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park in California will keep its main road and campgrounds closed for an additional two weeks this spring, and close the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center for two days each week. The Red Bluff Daily News reports that this will affect 1,100 schoolchildren who would normally visit the park during these weeks, and the park will lose about $156,000 in revenue.
- Shenandoah National Park has delayed the opening of campgrounds, picnic areas, and visitor centers, as well as the hiring of seasonal employees, park spokeswoman Karen Beck-Herzog told The Daily Progress newspaper in Virginia. Preventative search and rescue operations have been scrapped, eliminating an effective program that placed people at trailheads and on trails, making sure that hikers had water and a plan to keep themselves safe on challenging trails.
“A $110 million cut will not only be devastating to the parks themselves, but to the many businesses and communities that rely on them to drive sales,” said Perry Wheeler, a spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association, in an e-mail. “Our national parks represent just 1/14th of 1% of the federal budget, and they sustain a quarter-million in private sector jobs and generate $31 billion from tourism and recreation alone. Every dollar invested in the National Park Service generates about $10 in economic activity.”
ARC’s Crandall Takes High Road
The prevailing opinion in the outdoor hospitality industry is that efforts to reduce federal spending by cutting back on all government services, including the nation’s public lands, will be bad for private RV parks and campgrounds as well.
“I wish I could tell you there will be no impact,” Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), told WCM. “The impact will be a lot less than a lot of the hype in the media, and less than the impact of rising gasoline prices over the last month.”
However, looking at the situation more as an opportunity and less a crisis, he said the present is a good time for the private sector (RV park and campground owners as well as RV manufacturers) to be proactive with the federal government and help scrutinize their expenditures.
“Owners can sit back and accept those cuts, then complain to members of Congress or they can look for a sustainable solution to become a partner with federal programs we would like to make sustainable, no matter what happens,” Crandall said.
“First of all, whether or not sequestration happens in its current form,” he said days before the March 1 deadline, “we’re looking at a lean period for budgets of National Park Service and other public land providers,” Crandall said. “Sequestration gets all the (current) spotlight, but the overall budget projections for federal agencies that now serve a billion visitors are not good for the next several years. It is an issue that everybody in the recreation field should be looking at.”
The private sector is good at operating on reduced budgets – businesses routinely do so during lean times, Crandall said, but the concept is almost alien to the federal government.
“Most of us had our personal budgets affected by the downturn in the economy starting in 2007,” he said, “but the recovery spending of 2008-2010 allowed the federal agencies to continue without any impact from the recession.”
Crandall opposes across-the-board cuts in agencies like the National Park Service, because such cuts would cut “muscle and bone as well as fat.”
Crandall thinks a smarter approach would be to give the heads of all of the agencies the flexibility to implement these cuts responsibly by eliminating waste and duplication from their departments.
Indeed, Crandall took this opportunity to ask agencies like the NPS, which enacted a $115 million cutback via sequestration, to work with the private sector for the betterment of both.
ARC began asking groups known in the industry as destination marketing organizations (DMOs), such as chambers of commerce and convention and visitors and bureaus, located near federal lands to begin deploying some of their financial resources to public lands.
- In Bend Ore., an area with several national forests, ARC suggests DMOs use some of their advertising dollars to help with mountain bike patrols, apps and websites and sponsor joint programs. Rangers could be paid by the private sector to give interpretative programs at nearby privately owned campgrounds.
Something akin to this already occurs on cruises to Alaska in which NPS rangers come aboard the ships in Glacier Bay and elsewhere to talk about glaciers and whales. The cruise lines pay for this service.
“It’s time for campgrounds to say, if it would enhance the experience of our guests by having a park service ranger coming in to give presentations, now is the time we should pick up some of the costs,” Crandall said.
Crandall said the NPS collects $300 million in fees annually but could expand that by more than enough to offset the 5% cutback that is coming through sequestration just by making entrance fees more reasonable. The biggest parks charge $25 per vehicle, no matter whether it contains two people or eight people and no matter whether they’re staying for an afternoon or a week.
An airport charges for parking based on length of stay; parks should begin doing the same, he said.
“It’s time for us to say if you go into Yosemite and spend a week, you pay more than for a family that spends an afternoon there. The American public is willing to pay more in entrance fees and to campsites if they know the agencies will give them good value,” he said.
The NPS derives 93% of its operating funds from government appropriations; that percentage should come down as users pay more of their fair share, Crandall argued.
In a similar vein, “International visitors probably should pay more or not be able to buy an America the Beautiful pass that is good for a year for $80. International visitors need to pay something (a premium) that reflects that American taxpayers are helping to pay for national parks. It’s time to no longer subsidize those visits to national parks.”
He raised this argument again when he addressed the RVIA’s annual meeting in Florida in early March.
Statue of Liberty Dilemma
The government’s outdated way of doing business in times of disaster, such as following Superstorm Sandy last fall, is another example of how the federal government should amend its spending ways, Crandall said.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which provide the federal government $20 million in concessioner franchisee fees annually, were closed immediately following the storm and remain closed. The closing has led to the layoff of 500 workers who manned the ferry service and work with private concessioners. The ferry service was halted because docks on the island were damaged.
Yet, the day after the storm hit, concessioners met with NPS officials and offered to rebuild the docks. NPS said “thanks” but let’s wait until the Congress acts with disaster relief, Crandall explained.
Eventually, Congress passed legislation to provide the funding to return the island to normal.
“Sometime before 2014, we’ll have the Statue of Liberty reopened to the public,” Crandall said, but it could have been much sooner if the government had followed private enterprise’s lead.
Similarly, Crandall said the Statue of Liberty could be run more like a business if its hours of operation were extended. Until the storm hit, the last boat of the day left at 3:30 p.m.
“If we kept the Statue open until 10 p.m., you could see beautiful sunsets over New York Harbor and increase annual visitation of 4 million to 5 million or 6 million,” Crandall estimated. This increased visitation would raise current venue of $80 million by another $20 million to $30 million, he said.
In the meantime, campground owners like Jimmy Felton in Tennessee are thinking the fallout from the sequestration, no matter how long it lasts, will not be too great.
“There is always the risk that the public will get scared,” meaning that some will opt not to go camping this spring. But, he quickly points out that the private sector campgrounds usually offer so many more amenities than the public lands that the campers who frequent the more primitive sites in national parks aren’t the same ones that patronize the private campgrounds.