State Parks & the Private Sector: Growing the Camping Pie

With ARVC undertaking an aggressive effort to enroll state park campgrounds as members of ARVC, the long debated issue of the nature of the relationship between public and private campgrounds is once again heating up.

In my view, there is one compelling reason for the two groups to work together – to bring more firepower to the campaign to get more Americans to go camping. Whatever the number of campers there are today, and I’ve seen estimates ranging from 16 to 46 million, the future growth and success of the park industry lies in an ever expanding base of Americans who enjoy the great outdoors and camping.

The commercial industry is small – maybe 10,000 businesses and revenues estimated at around $6 billion. Engaging the public sector to join forces to promote camping brings additional resources to the effort to enlarge the pool. Since the commercial sector owns and operates the lion’s share of the camp sites and the likelihood of much growth in the state or federal campground side is quite low, the commercial sector is most likely to be the major beneficiary of growth in the number of campers.

For sure government parks will always have some distinct advantages in the competitive market place (and we all know too well what those advantages are) but over the years, the private sector has adjusted to the competition. As long as public park camping fees continue to rise – which they must because most government budgets no longer provide for significant subsidies to operate campgrounds – the playing field is more closely level than it’s been in some years.

A key part of growing the market of campers lies in both the public and private campground’s ability to meet the expectations and needs of the campers they serve. In this regard, both parties have a duty to provide quality camping. Poor camping experiences are not in our best interest. So, bringing both the public and private sectors into the industry tent so that both can improve and more effectively serve the consumer, is an important benefit. Both public and private sector interests have an obligation to provide positive experiences that are necessary to expanding the camping market.

As long as the commercial industry doesn’t expect more than the public sector can deliver i.e. a quality camping environment and experience together with promoting camping to the public, the relationship should be beneficial to all.

Now it’s up to the park industry to provide a level playing field within its associations for public parks. In Virginia, state parks are welcome to join the state association and ARVC on exactly the same terms as commercial parks. No discounts. All the benefits of membership. No discrimination between public and private. In our view, a campground is a campground and a camper is a camper.

Can the Scenic Byways Program Be Saved?

There’s a significant possibility that the very successful Scenic Byways and All American Roads programs could be victims of the deficit reduction/budget cutting efforts now underway in Washington. As the reauthorization of the Federal Highway Program is about to hit high gear in September, the Secretary of Transportation has already notified the Scenic Byways Resource Center that its funding is being eliminated on September 30th, and indications are that many parts of this important program are also likely to be cut from future highway funding legislation.

The program was created in the early 1990s and is designed to enhance the roads that take Americans into the scenic, historic, cultural and recreational heartland areas that are off the interstate highways. The program was seen as both an economic and recreational program to bolster the economies of smaller communities and to enable travelers to enjoy these special roads and byways. Strongly supported during its formative years and until today by the RV and camping industries together with the AAA, the American Recreation Coalition, the motorcycle industry, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Good Sam Club, the National Association of State Park Directors and other groups and organizations interested in preserving and protecting these off-highway areas, the program is now in danger.

The Scenic Byways program has three segments:

  • Federal designation of byways and All American Roads
  • Technical assistance to the communities and sponsors of the byways that is provided by the Byways Center in Duluth
  • Grant program to provide merit-based funding for development of replicable byways development and promotional programs that have national potential

At a meeting on August 5th of interested national groups in Washington, it was reported that there will likely be an extension of the Federal Highway Program by the end of September. In the House of Representatives, Cong. John Mica, chairman of the House committee with highway oversight, is pushing a six year, $250 billion program; in the Senate, Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate committee, is proposing a two year program at about $209 billion. Cong. Mica’s proposal would fund the entire program through the Highway Trust Fund. In either case, the byways’ technical assistance and grant programs are likely to be cut.

Byways experts at the meeting noted that there is less support for the Byways program at the top levels of Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) to the byways constituencies than in past years and there appears to be a loss of a national constituency for the program at that agency.

In June, letters signed by many association that support the extension of the Scenic Byways went to House and Senate leadership urging the program be continued. A coalition of tourism-related interests that is working on assuring federal highway legislation that takes into account the needs of the tourism and recreation industries is including continuation of the Scenic Byways program as part of its lobbying efforts. And an outcome of the August 5th meeting is a renewed lobbying effort that will include face to face meetings with tourism and highway legislative leaders in late August and into September.

With the economic picture in the US up in the air, and with consumer confidence lurking somewhere around the lowest points in many years, terminating a program that has been as beneficial to the park industry as Scenic Byways would not be an encouraging sign for recreational travelers.

The park industry, with leadership from the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds, the RV Industry Association, the RV Dealers Association and RVer consumer groups, should get behind the effort to keep the Scenic Byways program not only alive, but healthy and growing.