Sequestration & Tight Budgets for America’s Public Parks: What’s
the Real Impact for the RV Industry?
America’s Great Outdoors – national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and more – cover a third of our nation and attract a billion recreation visits annually, and more than 7,000 state parks draw another 720 million visits annually. Together, they manage tens of thousands of campsites and inspire countless RV purchases and rentals. That’s why the RV industry needs to be concerned, informed and involved when tight budgets threaten late openings, visitor centers and interpretation cuts – even closures.
Should we be concerned? Yes. Funding for federal campgrounds, trails on public lands, visitor centers and other facilities is considered domestic discretionary spending – and that is the part of the budget most impacted by deficit cuts. Spending on defense and “entitlements” (Social Security, healthcare, etc.) crowds out spending on parks, and crowding will increase when interest rates on the federal debt escalate to more traditional levels.
In 2013, the media reported delays in snow plowing needed to open major parks like Yellowstone and Glacier as well as a moratorium on filling 1,000 National Park Service (NPS) jobs, furloughing U.S. park police and reduced hiring of park “seasonals”– typically assigned to serve visitors. This is bad news because potential park visitors, having heard the news, in some cases have decided to forgo park visits this year and, perhaps, RV purchase and rental plans at the same time. In addition, clearly, the cutbacks could reduce park visitation quality.
But these challenges have some silver linings:
#1 — Park funding needs a new financial model. Ninety percent of the NPS budget relies on general tax receipts. Entrance fees, campground fees and other market-driven funding total only about $1 per visitor. Other thriving leisure destinations, including theme parks, cost $75 or more per person per day. Americans will pay for great experiences – especially if the alternative is to close parks. Congress and agency heads now understand this.
#2 — National parks and other sites need “make-overs.” Camping in national parks is inexpensive, offering incredible access to scenic places. Yet consider this: NPS campgrounds hosted more than 4 million overnight stays in RVs in 1987, but just 2.1 million in 2012. Why? NPS campsites don’t suit today’s RVers. There are few pull-through sites, and almost no hookups. Slideouts often don’t fit. Few campgrounds have dump stations. Very few offer cabins, yurts or rentable park models. “Make-over plans” using private investment are under way.
#3 — Unlike national park lodges, marinas and restaurants, most public park campgrounds are federally staffed. This approach is costly and ignores the investment and training that concessioners provide. This summer, visitors arriving at facilities operated by concessioners will see absolutely no decline in services. A strong coalition is now calling for a big change in park campground staffing.
#4 — Threats of delayed openings prompted local gateway communities to act. They funded snow plowing crews to get Yellowstone open on time and kept a visitor center at Cape Cod open. Discussions are now under way in many parks about cooperative efforts to meet visitor needs.
#5 — America’s Great Outdoors has unfortunately lost market share. Until recently, top federal managers were unconcerned. Now, the NPS is so concerned about declining visitation that it has under way a major outreach and promotional campaign tied to its 2016 centennial, which is likely to be comparable in size to Go RVing!
#6 — Agencies – and Congress – have learned the price of inflexible cuts imposed by sequestration, which sliced spending 5% at every park, forest and program – with almost no ability to be selective. That inflexibility is unlikely to be repeated as we look at long-term spending limits.
#7 — There are creative ways to provide great park visitor experiences at less cost to American taxpayers. A recent report by Resources For the Future documented actions by state parks – which depend much more on visitor fees. Ending construction of large visitor centers that are expensive to operate and relying more on technology to provide visitor information is here instead.
#8 — NPS charges the same entrance fee in both high and low seasons. Fees are for a car load – $25 or less – and for seven days across the board. The growing international market gets subsidized visits just as American taxpayers do. All Americans over 62 get free, life-time access to federal recreation sites for a one-time payment of $10. But fee reform is coming.
#9 — There is strong bipartisan Congressional support for parks. The NPS centennial is uniting these supporters and creates opportunities – like a new Penny for Parks and the Great Outdoors program. One cent of any new federal fuel tax dedicated to public lands could make travels to and through parks and public lands easier and safer.
#10 — The economics of the RV industry – and recreation overall – are better understood today than ever before. The President and all 50 governors, in proclaiming June as Great Outdoors Month, touted recreation’s $650 billion economic impact. Brand USA is touting parks and the Great Outdoors as a reason to visit America – and it is working. One job is created for every 35 international visitors we attract, and about one in five visitors already visits one or more national park. The President established a goal of 100 million international visitors by 2021, up from 60 million now. Last year, international visitation grew nearly 8% – ahead of this goal.
In summary, stakes are high. Parks and the Great Outdoors have helped the RV industry for decades. Fixing current problems and using doors now open to us can continue this for decades to come.