How to Rip-Off Taxpayers and Spoil a National Park Without Really Trying…

One of Texas’ most beautiful assets and one of the National Park System’s jewels is Big Bend National Park in west Texas. It is a magical place, a land of three harsh extremes juxtaposed into a rugged beauty not found anywhere else. Ever since I found the place in 1990, the campgrounds have been managed on a first-come, first served basis. While that was tough considering the park’s isolation from even any nearby private camping facilities if the place was full, it put everyone who dared go there on an equal footing and acted as a filter to keep the park from being overrun by car tourists who would only add more noise and pollution.

Not anymore.

This year, for the first time, it has become possible to reserve campsites using ReserveUSA.com, an online contractor who works for the US Forest Service and the National Park Service. I decided to give them a try and reserved a campsite for a few days after Christmas. In the interim, I have decided to change destinations and head over to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. But I already have a strong opinion about this online service, one I had reservations about using in the first place.

It sucks.

Here’s why:

(1) The national parks are the last refuges of enjoyment and freedom (said "tongue-in-cheek" since the government runs the places) for low-income families who can’t afford to go anywhere else. This new reservation system biases the availability of the park’s facilities, especially the best campsites, toward the computer elite, which essentially means the middle and upper class. Additionally, it now can also bias visitor-ship away from US citizens toward foreign citizens since proximity to the park is now no longer a factor in making the decision to go there.

(2) The fees associated with this system are absurdly high and not obvious to the casual observer. For instance, a campground in the Chisos Basin costs $10 a night. Reserving it using this system adds $3/night to the cost, increasing cost to the user by 33%. I’m willing to bet that this extra money goes to a private contractor, a concessionaire, and not one penny of it winds up in the parks. Remember that the parks are there in the first place because of our tax dollars. This essentially exploits these lands in the name of profit, however electronically it may be.

(3) The fees associated with this service are also not plainly spelled out. I constantly got surprised by how much I was being charged. For instance, it was not clear I would be charged 3 bucks a night for the reservation, a fee that seems abnormally high. If I go to Ticketmaster and order tickets for an event, I get charged one service fee for the entire transaction. If I were to reserve a campsite for every night of my stay up to the Parks’ two week limit, I would have to pay $72 additional for the use of this service. That’s simply outrageous. Also, wording on the site stated I would be charged $10 for canceling the reservation. Hotels don’t even charge that kind of fee, especially for an all electronic transaction canceled a full week before. Even worse, I wasn’t charged $10 for canceling the reservation, but twice that. Another surprise! It cost me $20 to give this a shot, something I'll weigh very carefully before doing again.

I’m not sure who’s idea putting Big Bend on this system was, but it was a bad one. The only advantage to it is it’s possible to reserve a campsite and know it will be there after a very long drive (if the campsites are adequately integrated with this thing, and I really don’t know if they are). But in every other sense, it detracts from the park experience. Campsite availability is no longer under the purview of the standard and undocumented rules of camping but now is subject to the whims of an electronic god totally disassociated from the experience. Secondly, it clearly puts availability into the hands of the “haves” (computer savy users who have Internet access—mostly people in the middle to upper class located in large metropolitan areas) versus the “have nots” (low to lower middle income families in rural areas), shoving the wilderness experience straight into the debate over the computer divide. The very least the NPS can do to ease this is to insist on lower fees for using the system, though I believe that the fairest thing to do is scrap it entirely.

When they first opened this system, notices on the Big Bend website said that the system was delayed because of a lawsuit. I’m not sure what that was about, but it’s really too bad it didn’t succeed. I never thought I would say that after a decade of ten and twelve hour drives to get there with largely unknown campsite availability at the other end. But once this thing was staring me in the face and I started seriously thinking about what it meant, I became more and more convinced it was not an overall good thing, at least not for me. Whether it turns out to be really good for the park and the average park user remains to be seen, and I am not hopeful.

That said and knowing how the Federal government works, it is unlikely to be repealed now that it is implemented. Accepting that (and I don’t entirely), two simple changes would help reduce the negative impact of this system. Reduce the number of campsites one can reserve and limit all reservations in the system to one night. Those moves would allow folks the luxury of knowing they have somewhere to lay their heads after a long drive but still level out the competition for campsites between those who don’t have computers and those who do.

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