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The Case Against Glamping on Public Lands

Do high-end campsites undermine the spirit of national parks?

One of the most popular new trends in outdoor recreation is known as “glamping” which is a portmanteau of “glamorous” and “camping”. The idea is this: visitors pay steep fees, ranging anywhere from $175 to $3,999 per night, to stay in luxurious campsites with hotel-like accommodations that can include TVs, elegant meals, and even maid service. Yet this new craze is being criticized by many as antithetical to the populist spirit of national and state parks.

photo of GlampingPhoto by Flickr user tgidenver Guests at a glamping site just outside Moab National Park.

Several companies have jumped into the glamping industry, competing to one-up each other when it comes to comfort and luxury. Some, like Pampered Wilderness, a new campsite operating in Millersylvania State Park in the state of Washington, are permanent, or at least seasonally permanent, campgrounds that offer guests onsite “amenities like flat-screen TVs or microwaves and fireplaces,” according to a 2015 New York Times op-ed by Christopher Solomon. Another “glampsite, Under Canvas, offers “king-size beds, plush linens, animal hide area rugs, well-worn leather chairs, a wood-burning potbelly stove...even daily maid service” to visitors. Other companies take guests from site to site, setting up glampsites as they move. (Though, to be fair, these guests are often still staying in tents and sleeping in sleeping bags.) For example, in a different editorial for the New York Times (which reads more like a paid advertisement), Amy Tara Koch writes that brands like REI now offer guided trips in national parks that include “in-tent delivery of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate every morning and Epsom salt foot baths at the end of the day.” Another company, Backroads organizes trips to parks “featuring camp hosts, a chef, and activity guides” in national parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton, among many others.

Some people are less than pleased with this new trend. In the words of Christopher Solomon, “[Glamping] is the worst thing to happen to public parks since poison ivy.”

The argument is that by offering high-priced luxury getaways in parks that have been specifically set aside for the enjoyment of all Americans, these business ventures detract from the egalitarian quality that makes the NPS so important. With the popularity of glamping on the rise, the great outdoors is at risk of becoming just another escape or amusement for the rich, while the middle-and-lower classes are shut out.

Eric Malkowski, who works as a trip leader for Backroads, told me that his company tries to minimize the impact is has on public land use. “Our goal is not to infringe on other people around us,” he said, explaining that in certain parks, like Glacier, they set up shop on private land adjacent to the park itself. At the same time, these companies (including Backroads) do erect many of their campsites in group sites leased out by the National Park Service (NPS), taking up spots that might otherwise be reserved by other visitors without the financial means to pay top dollar for camping.

Malkowski said that he  understands that glamping “may not be camping in the purest form.” He adds, however, that “to have that shared experience for families out there, around the campfire or going on hikes — whether guided or not — is definitely a unique experience for many families that maybe grew up or spent the bulk of their lives in cities or urban areas.” These families may not really know how to plan an extended outdoors trip on their own, he says. When it comes to Backroads, he says, “We try to take care of those hindrances that might keep them from the outdoors.” Glamping might also make the outdoors more accessible to the elderly and those with disabilities.

When I interviewed Christopher Solomon (who is also a contributing editor at Outside magazine and Runner’s World), he disagreed with that characterization of what these companies are doing. “These things [glamping sites] are taking up campsites that other people can enjoy, sometimes at extremely popular campgrounds,” he said, adding that there are other options for those not inclined to pitch a tent. “People can rent cabins, people can rent yurts at the same parks.”

Of course, the national parks have a long history of catering to the rich. In 1891, the Northern Pacific Railroad built the luxury Fountain Hotel at Yellowstone at a cost of $100,000 dollars. According to historian Alice Wondrak Biel, the hotel “accommodated 350 visitors and, with its steam heat, electricity, and baths of geyser water ... provided an oasis of civilization in the midst of the park’s wilderness.” As Solomon said when I spoke with him, “Of course there has been some of that in the past, but that doesn’t mean we need to continue to perpetuate and expand it.”

The nation’s parks are fundamentally a populist creation. The land they sit on was set aside to that all Americans would have the opportunity to see and experience the great outdoors, their natural heritage. While it is certainly true that the majority of parks remain open to cheap public use, particularly when it comes to federal land, amid budget cuts, glamping in increasingly encroaching upon state-owned land.

States such as Alabama, Washington, and Wisconsin have made massive budget cuts to their state park systems. According to an article in Governing, “Earlier [in 2016], West Virginia shuttered several state park pools and laid off employees. In Illinois, a budget stalemate led to the closure of two parks.” Even in a heavily Democratic state like New York, the parks system is vulnerable to budget cuts from state lawmakers. John Sheehan, who represents the Upstate New York conservation group the Adirondack Council, said that Governor Andrew Cuomo has made deep cuts at regulatory agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adriondack Park Agency since he assumed control of the state about six years ago."We’re very concerned that this is a pattern that continues and that we think has to end very soon,” he said.

As a result, parks have raised user fees, begun charging for basic services, and in some cases, have begun to allow increased glamping at the expense of those state’s everyday citizens.

While glamping seems to be more prevalent in state parks, it is also taking hold in many national parks. Glamping.com lists 38 companies that provide luxury camping in or near United States national parks. Backroads alone operates in Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Zion, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon, along with a handful of other national parks. And with unified Republican control of the federal government, it is very possible that funding for the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior will be slashed, as President Trump’s budget proposes. What happens then? The evidence seems to point toward the well-paved, well-lit direction of glamping.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are several other ways for parks to raise funds.

For example, last fall, Alabama voters voted to make it illegal to spend funds earmarked for state parks or generated by the parks for other purposes. In Missouri, voters approved a sales tax to support state parks, and in Rhode Island, citizens passed a bond to fund improvements throughout the state’s parks. On the national level, there is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses money from offshore oil and gas leases to provide funds for park preservation and other Department of the Interior and NPS projects. According to the fund’s website, it also gives out many grants to state and local park and conservation efforts.

John Sheehan said, “In New York we have the Environmental Protection Fund.... It is financed principally through the real estate transfer tax. That’s a tax on large real estate transactions, usually involving significant development, and that fund generates more than one billion dollars a year, and the first 300 million or so is directed into the Environmental Protection Fund. That part is used to purchase new lands, for certain stewardship projects, and environmental capital projects.” (Many of these projects involve the Adirondack Park, along with other public lands in New York State.) Sheehan added that he did not have a problem with glamping, as long as it is restricted to private campsites and land and does not infringe on the wilderness in the Adirondack Park. (The Adirondacks are unique in that they comprise a mix of public wilderness and privately held land).

At the end of the day, it is perhaps a quote from the late environmental law professor Joseph Sax’s book of essays, Mountains Without Handrails, that makes the best (if unintentional) case against glamping. Sax was writing about preservationists who protested the development of national parks, but his words ring true in today’s debate over glamping and its role in our public spaces: “[The preservationist] is concerned about what other people do in the parks not because he is unaware of the diversity of taste in the society, but because he views certain kinds of activity as calculated to undermine the attitudes he believes the parks can, and should, encourage... He finds a park full of planned entertainments and standardized activities a deterrent to independence, whereas an undeveloped park leaves the visitor to set his own agenda and learn how to amuse himself."

It is not a cumudgeonly resistance to change or to the market that characterizes anti-glamping arguments. Instead, it is a deep-seated love of public parks and what they represent: a place for all people, no matter who they are or how wealthy they may be, to set up a tent or check into cabins side by side with each other, and to enjoy nature as it is meant to be enjoyed — without special treatment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted John Sheehan as saying that Governor Andrew Cuomo has "made very deep cuts in the ranger and environmental officer force." Sheehan says that Cuomo has made deep cuts at regulatory agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adriondack Park Agency.

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