Trump advisory council recommends expanding private business in national parks

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A Trump administration advisory panel is recommending an ambitious plan to give private businesses greater access to national parks, according to a memorandum written by an advisory council for the Department of the Interior.

Some price increases could also in the works for park visitors under the plan.

Drafters of the plan say it amounts to little more than a much-needed modernization of aging infrastructure, and that the goal is to make national parks accessible to a younger, more diverse audience. Critics, on the other hand, see corporate influence at work.

Yellowstone Campgrounds sign. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are 419 national parks in the United States, from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. All are overseen by the National Park Service, which is part of the Interior Department. That department is headed by David Bernhardt, a former Republican operative and corporate lobbyist who has made no secret of his desire to increase the presence of private enterprise in national parks.

Private businesses — including concessionaires and tour guides — already operate in many national parks, but Bernhardt and a number of his deputies have argued that the parks have $12 billion in deferred maintenance, and that such funds are much more easily found from outside the federal government than within.

Scenic view of Brooks Range, Dietrich River and the Dalton Highway, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Arctic Alaska. (Photo: Getty Images)

Now that plan seems to be rapidly taking shape, despite opposition from conservationists who say it amounts to nothing more than a corporate giveaway. They argue that the Trump administration has exaggerated the need to raise funds in order to justify the sale and lease of public lands outside the national park system, as well as favorable terms for concessionaires inside the parks. Some of the nation’s biggest concessionnaires, such as Delaware North, are headed by significant donors to Trump and the Republican Party.

The Sept. 24 memorandum, which was written for the Department of the Interior’s Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement Through Reorganization, says the plan should begin as a pilot program “in park units with low levels of visitor services.” But eventually that program would be exported to other agencies within the Interior Department that manage public lands, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The memo was subsequently posted to the internet, where it appears to have attracted no notice.

The topic of the memorandum is “campground modernization/expansion.” Although there is no author cited in the two-page document, a metadata analysis performed by conservationist groups that first came upon the file shows that it was written by Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition.

In a phone conversation with Yahoo News, Crandall confirmed that he was the “chief author” of the memo. He said it has been approved by the appropriate committee and will be endorsed by Bernhardt shortly. Interior officials disputed that characterization, telling Yahoo News, “We have not received formal recommendations from the committee for the department's consideration. We’ll review the report once we receive it and respond accordingly.” A staffer at Interior headquarters said that Crandall’s memorandum was set to undergo additional review and revision, including public deliberation.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speaks with park rangers. (Photo: Al Drago/Reuters)

Crandall in turn disputed Interior’s characterization of where the matter stood. He said that his memorandum had, in fact, been “unanimously approved” and will go to Bernhardt next week “in its current form.”

The American Recreation Coalition lobbies for private industry in public parks. Crandall worked in the Republican administrations of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. He is currently a member of the Made in America Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, which was started by Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke, who was forced from office for a variety of ethical lapses. Other members of the industry-heavy committee include Jeremy Jacobs of Delaware North, the nation’s most prominent concessions operator in national parks, and Bruce Fears of Aramark Leisure, another major operator in that industry.

Crandall forcefully disputed suggestions of a corporate giveaway while expressing an admiration for public lands.

“It is not privatization,” he said of his plan. He said that the “idea of cooperation” between the federal government and private enterprise has been integral to the national parks since their founding a century ago.

Crandall’s memorandum specifically focuses on the national parks’ campgrounds, of which there are 130 nationwide. Zinke said in 2017 that he did not “want to be in the business of running campgrounds.” Among the members of the recreation advisory committee he formed is Jim Rogers, who until 2015 was the head of Kampgrounds of America, the nation’s largest private campground operator.

Crandall also suggests changes that would greatly expand the footprint of private enterprises like KOA and Delaware North within the national park system. If leases and agreements are signed while Trump is in office, it would be difficult — if not impossible — for a subsequent Democratic administration to nullify or curtail such contracts, meaning that a plan the critics call privatization could become a virtually permanent feature of parks like Yellowstone or Shenandoah.

A bison crosses the road in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. (Photo: Getty Images)

The memo opens by asserting that campgrounds are “excellent candidates for partner management under concessions and leases.” It then approvingly cites KOA research that people find visiting campgrounds “rewarding and desirable.” Crandall proceeds to argue that federally operated campgrounds suffer from “inadequate and outmoded visitor infrastructure.” As one example, he cites the lack of wireless internet service, as well as a dearth of places to shop.

The document also recommends that campgrounds on national parks permit food trucks, which have become highly popular in urban settings but tend to be rare in the wilderness.

Other proposals that Crandall floats include ending senior discounts during certain times of the year; a “market pricing” model that would have an adjustment for inflation and, in all probability, raise prices for all users of campgrounds in national parks; opening up more of the campgrounds to private concessions; and giving concessions operators free housing in the public parks.

In explaining his plan to Yahoo News, Crandall said it was only “logical” to invite experts in recreation to update national parks to suit 21st century needs. He said that federal park employees had “little expertise” in areas like food and housing services, and that privatizing such operations would free up staff to focus on their work.

Conservationists were aghast at the plan, which has not been finalized but does appear to be moving briskly toward implementation.

“David Bernhardt and President Trump won’t quit until the American people are left totally empty-handed and private special interests own our outdoor heritage,” said Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of the Western Values Project, a conservation group that has been a frequent critic of the current administration.

“Privatizing America’s public campgrounds,” O’Neill continued, “and jacking up national park fees to appease private concessionaires and powerful corporate campaign donors is just the administration's latest egregious attempt to rip public lands out of public hands.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the advisory council’s memo is a recommendation to the Trump administration, and has not been adopted as policy by the Department of Interior.

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