Coming soon to a campground near you

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The Interior Department announced last month that it is exploring new recommendations to privatize and modernize some National Park Service campgrounds. Some of the “upgrades” that could be coming soon to a campground near you include hot showers, Wi-Fi connections and food trucks.

While baby boomer RVers don’t care so much about constant Instagram updates, recent studies suggest the next generation of campers might be more willing to “rough it” under the stars, so long as trendy street tacos and a high-speed internet connection are within reach.

The proposal to privatize and modernize some national park campgrounds comes from the Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, set up by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. As a member of President Trump’s Cabinet, Zinke was interested in finding more ways for private companies to operate on public lands, including management of national park campgrounds.

Committee Vice Chairman Derrick Crandall contends that many national park campgrounds don’t meet expectations, and that allowing private concessionaires to run them could free up park staff for other visitor services.

Privatizing operations at national parks isn’t unprecedented — in fact it’s commonplace at the park in our own backyard.

Currently, the Park Service manages all of Glacier National Park’s campgrounds, but concessions contracts have been issued to provide other amenities. Xanterra Parks and Resorts provides lodging, camp stores, historic red bus tours and food service throughout the park. Glacier Park Boat Co. runs the scenic boat tours at Apgar, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier, Rising Sun, and Two Medicine, while Belton Chalets manages Glacier’s two historic backcountry chalets. Other concessionaires operate as private guides within the park.

Some groups worry that privatizing and modernizing campgrounds could lead to unreasonable prices — and that’s a legitimate concern. After all, America’s national parks are for everyone’s enjoyment, not just the well-off. Currently, camping fees at Glacier vary between $10-$23 per night. It would be challenging for a private concessionaire to operate with nightly rates that low.

Wisely, the committee plans to test its proposal first and is expected to select a handful of lesser-known national park campgrounds by December for a pilot project.

With the Park Service facing a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog — including an estimated $331 million for campgrounds — it’s worth a shot. If a private company proves it can manage operations more efficiently, at a fair price-point, and attract more people to the outdoors, that’s a good thing.

As for the modern campground amenities like Wi-Fi and food trucks — we could do without all that. Camping is a time to unplug and unwind. Hot dogs over an open fire, good conversation and a clear view of the starry heavens will do just fine.

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