An advisory panel begun while Ryan Zinke headed the Interior Department is recommending that the National Park Service privatize their campgrounds. The Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement, a delightfully ironic name, suggests we can make our wilderness experience better by providing Wi-Fi, food trucks, and equipment rentals (think ATVs and snowmobiles). Zinke is the man who, while in charge of caring for public lands, set a record for opening them for oil, gas and mineral mining. And, yes, he was forced from office for some ethical lapses, but the committee continued.
There is a case to be made that those campgrounds need upgrading. They are part of more than $12 billion in backlogged park maintenance. To help with maintenance and to bring more money into the parks, the subcommittee suggests upgrades that meet “the expectations of the contemporary camping market.” They also suggested doing away with most discounts for seniors.
I’m fairly certain that the founding fathers (and a few mothers) of our national park system probably didn’t have digital enhancements and miniature golf in mind when they created those islands of wildness. Rather, I suspect, they wanted to preserve a few beautiful places in perpetuity as sites for repose and wonder.
Recommendations to eliminate that backlog, one caused by Congressional and Presidential neglect, suggests making them miniature Pigeon Forges and Gatlinburgs. Forget the fact that visitors who want to experience life in “the contemporary camping market” can already do so in or outside gateway towns or, for bigger parks, in concession hotels. And push under a carpet somewhere the idea that private concessions will be in the business of making a profit. Who knows how much of the money they collect on our public lands will be returned to the parks they exploit. Nothing to see here; move on.
Pushed by Trump appointees, what is really happening is what has happened to other public institutions, making them miniature profit centers for corporations. Consider the service one gets in private prisons or in privatized centers for asylum seekers. Those are not pretty pictures of either service or financial savings.
To get a foot in the park door, the plan will be introduced in parks with “low levels of visitor services.” My guess is that someone somewhere is already considering naming rights for the Grand Canyon, as parks move from public stewardship to private exploitation. Perhaps a Trump Tower in the Tetons or a Trump Casino on Mount LeConte.