National Park Lodging Concessionaires Creating Their Own Stimulus Plans

You just might be able to find a good deal on lodging at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park this summer. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Only a hibernating Montana grizzly could be unaware of the drumbeat of discouraging economic news. From the crash and burn of much of our banking system thanks to poor decisions by underestimating risk to the financial distress of retailers and manufacturers, including an impoverished automotive industry, the economic news has been universally grim.

Rising unemployment (although down slightly in April), a record for home foreclosures, increased personal and business bankruptcies, untenable state deficits ($21 billion and growing for California alone), and declines in economic activity are all part of a bleak economic picture.

This same song has been playing in the travel industry as businesses and families reduce spending (and, believe it or not, borrowing) while attempting to put their financial houses in order. Airlines are flying fewer passengers, rental car companies are seeing fewer customers, and hotels are facing reduced occupancy.

The Department of Commerce reported that nationwide travel spending was down an annualized 22 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008. Results from the first quarter of 2009 will be released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on June 16. A study commissioned by Deloitte and released in mid-May indicated that nearly half the families interviewed who planned a summer vacation expected to stay in less-expensive hotels and spend less time away from home. Although the United States saw a record number of international visitors in 2008, this bright spot had turned negative by early 2009 as economic conditions deteriorated globally.

Not surprisingly, national parks are feeling the impact of the economic downturn. Yellowstone National Park reported a 13 percent decline in 2008-09 winter visitation compared to the previous year. A portion of the drop was attributed to weather, but there seems little doubt the poor economy was an important factor. That said, the park witnessed an 11 percent upswing in visitation through 2009's first five months.

Elsewhere, Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks reported year-to-year declines in visitation through the first four months of 2009.

Concern about the economic consequences of decreased travel caused Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to announce on June 2nd that national park entrance fees would be waived during three summer weekends. At the same time, he revealed that several park concessionaires including Aramark Parks and Resorts, Forever Resorts, and Delaware North Companies would be offering various summer discounts and giveaways.

A decline in park visitation can be expected to be accompanied by an increase in national park lodging vacancies. The National Park Service reported reductions in overnight lodging for Yosemite, Sequoia, Big Bend, and Zion of 11.4 percent, 9 percent, 8.3 percent, and 25.9 percent, respectively, for the first four months of 2009. The decline wasn’t universal, however. The Grand Canyon lodges, Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park, and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park reported slight increases in stays during the same period. Still, the outlook is, at best, guarded with the approach of the prime visitation season for most parks.

In general, lodge concessionaires are finding advance reservations are down; in some cases, significantly. However, they seem to believe (or hope) that an unusually large number of families will be making last-minute travel decisions, and that overall occupancy will be better than indicated by advance reservations.

Alicia Thompson, manager of sales, marketing, and public relations for Glacier Park, Inc., indicated this is true for their lodges in Glacier National Park. Brandon Kursner, general manager of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, said that travelers are booking later, but the lodge is still filling on weekends and October is sold out. That said, his guests are spending less on souvenirs, something that seems to be true at nearly all the park lodges and gift shops. As an aside, the inn has started including a complimentary breakfast for its guests.

Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch in Death Valley, agrees that people are reserving much closer to their travel dates, an unusual practice for foreign tourists who are the major factor in Death Valley’s summer visitation. Still, both Mr. Kursner and Mr. Dickinson appear relatively optimistic for the upcoming season.

In the current business climate, concessionaires are pursuing several avenues in an attempt to reduce the effects of the weak economy. In some instances businesses are combining several components in a single promotion.

* The most basic promotion is a reduction in the prices charged for rooms, meals, and activities.

This includes an effective price reduction when tossing in incentives such as free or discounted meals and activities. The disadvantage of this option is that, while it might attract families who would otherwise go elsewhere or not go anywhere at all, it also reduces revenues from travelers who would be willing to pay rack rate.

This type promotion is being tried to an extent, but it appears to be primarily aimed at specific groups or offered only during shoulder seasons when rooms are generally available anyway. Kenny Karst, public relations manager for Delaware North Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, said the concessionaire’s lodging is typically sold out during peak season and they are offering discounted packages only for the shoulder and off-season of October through March.

Back at Death Valley, Xanterra is offering seniors (age 60 and over) “longevity bonus” discounts of 10 percent, 20 percent, or 30 percent for stays in Furnace Creek Inn or Furnace Creek Ranch of one, two, and three days, respectively.

Glacier Park, Inc. partnered with other park concessionaires to offer a June Vacation Stimulus Package that combines lodging with 2-for-1 deals including golf, horseback riding, rafting, and tours in its “Jammer” buses. These packages are valid through June but had to be booked by May 22. The company also offered discounts for customers who booked air, rail, and car rentals through the Glacier Travel Center. In addition, the concessionaire announced its 2009 Sustaining Glacier’s Treasures Program for the second week in September that combines four nights at the motel unit of Lake McDonald Lodge with meals and volunteer work in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Glacier National Park Fund.

Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park is offering a You Decide package from mid-May to mid-June and from late August through late-September that gives guests who book a two-night stay a $100 resort credit that can be used for an activity such as a float trip, guided fishing trip, horseback ride, bus tour, or scenic lake cruise.

The park’s main concessionaire, Grand Teton Lodge Company, is also offering a Conservation Vacation Volunteer Package that includes a room discount at Colter Bay in return for service hours in projects such as trail maintenance, brush clearing, and cabin preservation. This package, at $120 per person per night based on double occupancy, includes three meals a day and is available September 20-26.

* A second option is to increase or redirect marketing budgets.

For example, some concessionaires may concentrate more heavily on promotions directed at local or regional markets. This alternative is more effective for concessionaires in parks such as Death Valley, Olympic, Sequoia, Shenandoah, and Yosemite that are within reasonable driving distance of major urban centers. It is also effective for smaller lodges that typically cater to locals and repeat visitors.

Bill Hecomovich of Kettle Falls Hotel, a small lodging facility in Voyageurs National Park, said that their business is quite good and he is finding that locals are spending less by staying closer to their home areas. Targeting the local or regional markets is generally less appealing for isolated destination parks such as Glacier, Big Bend, Isle Royale, and Glacier Bay where a greater commitment of time and money is required on the part of travelers.

* A third possibility is forming a consortium of affected parties.

This option offers efficiencies because an increase in business for one concessionaire is likely to result in increased business for other concessionaires or businesses in close proximity to the same park. An increase in business for Xanterra in Grand Canyon or Yellowstone will almost certainly result in increased business for Delaware North’s operation in the same park, and for businesses near park entrances.

Forever Parks and Resorts is partnering with the National Park Service, the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, Lotus Broadcasting Company, and other concessionaires in Lake Mead National Recreation Area in a program to attract Las Vegas visitors to Lake Mead. The program includes opportunities to win trips and activities including a grand prize of a houseboat vacation on Lake Mead or Lake Mohave.

At Rock Harbor Lodge in Isle Royale National Park, Forever Resorts is offering a “Kayak Eco-Tour” that includes four nights’ lodging, meals, boat transportation to the island, and guided kayak trips. “Many of Forever Resorts operations, including those in national parks, have partnered with other concessioners and public entities to bring additional added value to visitors for staying or visiting Forever destinations,” explains Darla Cook, vice president of Forever Resorts.

* A fourth option that appears to be the choice of Aramark Parks & Destinations is the bundling of a room, meals, and activities into a discounted package made available for most of the season.

Sandy Heilman, vice president of sales and marketing, relates that the challenging economy has caused Aramark to become more aggressive. For example, Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park is offering a Soaring Savings Package of a one-night stay, a half-day guided tour, and a continental breakfast for two at a price of $199. This special is offered through the summer season until October 21.

Aramark is offering a similar package at Lake Powell Resort in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that includes two nights’ lodging, a scenic boat tour or day use of a boat, plus a daily breakfast for two. The concessionaire’s two properties in Olympic National Park – Kalaloch Lodge and Sol Duc Hot Springs -- are also bundling rooms, activities, and limited meals.

Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park is bundling a room, breakfast for two, and admission to Luray Caverns for $139 to $155 on most weekdays through September 2010.

New and revised promotions are possible in the event travel to the parks remains weak through the summer. If the Federal Reserve has difficulty determining what works in a rescue of the U.S. banking system, lodge concessionaires can be excused for tweaking existing promotions and trying new campaigns in an attempt attract more visitors to their properties. Unfortunately, concessionaires in parks such as Glacier, Isle Royale, and Voyageurs that are subject to short seasons have limited flexibility to offer new pricing and packages. Although it is more difficult to conduct business when the economy heads south, it is often a time when innovation occurs and much is learned. Stay tuned.

David and Kay Scott are the authors of The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, published by Globe Pequot. Additional information about national park lodges is available at their website.

Comments

My wife I we stayed three nights over Memorial Day weekend at Volcano House, the park lodge inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We didn't get any deals (but didn't ask for one either, shame on me) but I was surprised how empty was the lodge. Our ground floor volcano view room was the only one of five occupied the whole time. The upstairs room was occupied one night out of three. I expected a full house like many prominent park lodges are during prime times. Must be the overall drop in tourism to Hawaiii. I wish I'd called direct instead of booking online and asked for a better deal (shame on me). By the way, the lodge is dated, in need of new mattresses, better food services, but the view can't be beat!

I live in Hawaii and can testify that our tourist-based economy is indeed in dire straits. Visitor numbers are down about 23% from a year ago. Tourism is an industry that reflects general consumer confidence, and that is not a pleasant picture right now. The sudden price spike in the price of oil last year followed by the real estate and financial meltdown was a one-two punch to tourism. For those involved in providing commercial services to visitors to the national parks and for the communities that depend on tourist spending the downturn in the economy is proving to be disaster. Here in Hawaii property prices are falling, unemployment is increasing, tax revenues are declining, and airline service has been reduced. Scenes such as these are playing out in other tourist dependent regions across the country.

The era of the private automobile is in decline. Oil supplies are tightening, and the cost of driving will once again increase. If park tourism is to survive it must adjust to the transportation reality unfolding. That means a shift back to mass transit, such as busses and passenger trains and adapting visitor accommodations accordingly. Trying to resuscitate the automobile based model is ultimately a waste of time and resources.

"The era of the private automobile is in decline."

True. GM now stands for Government Motors.

"Oil supplies are tightening..."

Not true. June 3 headline on CNNMoney: Oil sinks after surprise supply jump.

"...and the cost of driving will once again increase."

Rising oil prices correlate to the decline in the US Dollar, and since oil is traded in USD, a weaker dollar (due to debt load and inflation of the monetary supply) equates to higher oil prices.

"If park tourism is to survive it must adjust to the transportation reality unfolding."

You mean a politicized version of reality?

"That means a shift back to mass transit, such as busses and passenger trains and adapting visitor accommodations accordingly."

Adapting visitor accommodations accordingly? What does that even mean?

"Trying to resuscitate the automobile based model is ultimately a waste of time and resources."

Says central economic planners. The free market might suggest otherwise and is the true measure of efficiency of time and resources, not government bureaucrats lacking the proper tools or knowledge.

Frank C, the following is a link to a study commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Energy. It does a good job of presenting the energy challenges facing the nation and describes the urgency of taking immediate mitigative actions to avert a crippling energy shortage in the near future. There are many other authoritative studies produced by respected energy experts that reach the same basic conclusions.

http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Oil_Peaking_NETL.pdf

The end of cheap oil has important implications for national parks, as well as virtually every other aspect of modern life. The days of two or three people encased in three-to-four thousand pounds of metal and plastic cruising carefree around the country are fading. It is simply an unsustainable system. The visitor industry will have to adapt as people are forced to move to more efficient and less expensive means of travel.

The days of two or three people encased in three-to-four thousand pounds of metal and plastic cruising carefree around the country are fading. It is simply an unsustainable system.

Then why is Government Motors proposing to force the manufacture of "green" cars for everyone's future? I agree with Frank that the free market will dictate the future, as it does in all things. The days of believing what the government says are fading. That debt laden monstrosity on the Potomac already represents an unsustainable system. Just ask world currency traders and the Chinese. The time has come for a new paradigm and y'all better be ready because it's coming to a former superpower near you.

Tourism is a free enterprise industry and it depends on the luxury dollar. The luxury dollar is disappearing due to unemployment.

NPS lodge rates are very expensive. I never could afford them and tent camped instead.

Deals that combine lodging and food are a good idea. I always heard that Las Vegas is cheap because the food is cheap to allow the gambling dollar.

If the NPS wants to survive they have to accommodate the tourist and sport enthusiast. Cheap lodging and tours are a good idea for tourist. Allowing sport enthusiast to use the NPS is another.

The last 20 years of so have been the domain of the tourist who has tried to limit the use of parks by tourists and sport enthusiast, they rarely succeeded but the arguments illustrated on this site show that many want the use restricted to only a few rather than the many like the mountain bikers. The mountain bikers if their numbers will increase will get greater demand power and the NPS will accommodate them.

I hope the NPS does succeed in maintaining enough tourists to survive and maintain the funding for maintenance. The NPS should be aware that the more development increases maintenance costs.

With the debt getting to be so high for each person and new child there is little ability to continue high funding the next 20 years since the feds are spending the future dollars now.

RAH, your comments typically provide a lot to agree with, but once in a while you drop in a real zinger. Like this one:

Tourism is a free enterprise industry and it depends on the luxury dollar.

The tourism industry depends on the luxury dollar? I think you might want to put a sector qualifier or two in there. As an industry, tourism in America (and in developed countries around the world) thrives on money spent by people of ordinary means.

I do believe Bob misunderstood the definition of "luxury" dollar. Discretionary dollar is more appropriate. The "people of ordinary means" have fewer discretionary dollars to spend and tourism is a discretionary pursuit.

"The visitor industry will have to adapt as people are forced to move to more efficient and less expensive means of travel."

"Forced"? As in through government coercion? It certainly won't be economics doing the forcing; driving is cheaper per passenger mile--even when factoring in externalities--than other options. For most trips, cars are still less expensive and more convenient than the alternatives, so they are likely to remain the dominant form of American transportation for a long time.

I would agree that cars are incompatible with the Organic Act's preservation mandate and that cars and roads should be eliminated from national parks. Not sure if Ray is one of the many who decry automobile use everywhere except in national parks.

"Tourism is a free enterprise industry..."

Tourism in national parks is not a free enterprise industry; it's a government-granted monopoly, "a form of coercive monopoly by which a government grants exclusive privilege to a private individual or firm to be the sole provider of a good or service; potential competitors are excluded from the market by law, regulation, or other mechanisms of government enforcement."

The issue (reality) of oil production limitations and its impacts on our industrialized world has obvious implications to national parks. Oil production in the U.S., once the world's leader in petroleum, peaked out around 1970, and has been in decline since. Until recently, Mexico was the third largest supplier of oil to the U.S.. Now, however, it is experiencing dramatic production declines and will soon be a net importer of oil. The same is true for a host of oil producing nations, including those of western Europe. Total world oil production has been essentially flat since 2005, despite historic record prices. We now use about 3 barrels of oil for every new barrel that is being discovered. Virtually all major oil producers acknowledge that the days of cheap oil are over. The oil that remains in the ground is largely more difficult and expensive to produce and often is of a lower grade. It is not politics that will force us to make changes in the way we live; it is geological reality.

Park visitation is a child of the era of cheap and abundant energy, particularly liquid fuels. People thought nothing of jumping in the family car and driving hundreds or even thousands of miles for recreational sightseeing. Accommodations for visitors in and around the parks were designed around the use of private cars and, in some cases, the need to control their impacts. We now are entering a new era of transportation and life in general. Circumstances will force park visitors, commercial operations and management to make substantial adjustments. Instead of the large numbers of private vehicles entering a park, greater numbers of people will almost certainly arrive via bus or, hopefully, a resurrected national and local rail system. Chances are that there will be fewer visitors arriving from longer distances. Camping will probably become more popular. The RV is likely to disappear. The list goes on, but the basic message is clear. We have passed a national and global inflection point in regard to energy and our economy, and there is no going back to the "good ole days" of carefree motoring.

I don't want to beat this point into the ground, RAH and Anon, but please indulge me. Travel-related leisure activity ceased being a luxury in America many decades ago. Today, Americans consider leisure travel to be necessary for "a reasonable standard of well-being" in pretty much the same way that automobiles, dishwashers, cable TV, and cell phones -- all once considered luxuries -- are now viewed as ordinary elements of the American lifestyle. That's why it's wrong to say that you spend a luxury dollar when you spend a dollar on travel-related leisure. As Anon has aptly pointed out, you spend a discretionary dollar. That is a hugely important distinction. To acknowledge this is not to deny the existence of a luxury component of visitor industry. It is represented by higher-end goods and services, including such things as costly lodging in some national park-based hotels.

A study by the University of California came out in the news yesterday that just might go a long ways toward debunking, or at least calling into question, Ray Bane's certainty that private cars will not remain viable because

It is not politics that will force us to make changes in the way we live; it is geological reality.

http://snipurl.com/jq8f7

Beamis, The article you cite is focussed on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. My "certainty that private cars will not remain viable.." is based on the projected availability of fossil fuels, particularly liquid petroleum. Greenhouse gas emissions is certainly a very important issue that must be taken into consideration regardless of whatever means of transportation and other forms of mechanical power may be used in the future. However, that question is moot unless there is a cheap and plentiful supply of liquid energy available. The findings of the DOE study that I cited earlier have been validated by a separate study carried out by the U.S. military. Other national and international agencies have also arrived at similar conclusions. The exact timing of the peak of oil production continues to be debated, but the consensus of most oil geologists and others with oil related expertise is that total world production of conventional oil will - or already has - reach a maximum high point and then go into a prolonged, irreversible decline.

Please note, I am not saying that we are "running out" of oil. That is not the issue. It is that the flow rate of total world oil production has or will soon enter into an era of decline. It has already happened in many of the major historic producers of oil including the U.S.A., Mexico, Great Britain/Norway, Oman, Syria, Egypt, etc. The discovery of new oil reserves peaked out in the 1960s, and has been shrinking since. The math is brutal. It's the same as withdrawing more from your bank account than you are putting in. Eventually (now?) you have to cut back on what you are spending.

Insofar as national parks are concerned, they will have to make adjustments to a less bountiful supply of oil based fuels - as will we all. It will eventually become excessively expensive and even difficult to buy the gas to fuel private vehicle travel for non-essential purposes. Indeed, that trend is already beginning as Americans cut back on driving miles and the purchase of new vehicles. The much publicized Canadian tar sands and western oil shale reserves will not save the day, because of the expense, difficulty and environmental cost of extracting and processing a very low grade of synthetic oil. Hopefully, the National Park Service and those who are economically dependent on the parks will begin the process of planning and preparing for a future with a generally reduced supply of conventional energy.

I meant the luxury dollar of the middle class. We have fixed expenses and some discretionary income for entertainment and vacations. Many people have lost jobs and have no discretionary income for luxuries like vacations. Tourism is down because of this, that is what I meant by the luxury dollar. Most people have little or no money for any luxuries like trips.

Instead of the large numbers of private vehicles entering a park, greater numbers of people will almost certainly arrive via bus or, hopefully, a resurrected national and local rail system.

Implicit in this and your other statements is that public transportation uses less energy than private vehicles.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy data that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded–the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat–making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Also consider the cost of construction:

The environmental impact statement for a Portland, Oregon light-rail line found it would take 171 years of annual energy savings to repay the energy cost of construction.

If we really wanted to save energy, we would privatize transit, privatize Amtrak, and sell highways to private entrepreneurs who would have an incentive to reduce the congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year.

Hat tip to The Antiplanner.

Hopefully, the National Park Service ... will begin the process of planning and preparing for a future with a generally reduced supply of conventional energy.

Keep hoping. Won't happen as long as the NPS remains a political spoils system in collusion with corporate concessions.

Keep hoping. Won't happen as long as the NPS remains a political spoils system in collusion with corporate concessions.

Couldn't have said it better Frank.

Mussolini spoke of our current governmental structure quite well when he said that "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

Frank C, Interesting info. It implies that mass transit is inherently less economical than travel via private auto. That conclusion is based on assumptions that I believe do not reflect the full cost of driving. Please check out the following: http://www.commutesolutions.org/calc.htm . If a person drives approximately 11,400 mi. per year the true cost of private auto travel would be $1.34 per mile for an annual cost of $15,365.00. Note, that total includes direct and indirect (hidden) costs. When oil sold for $147 per barrel the cost of gasoline increased accordingly. People drove less and used public transportation more. The more people who shift from private autos to mass transit the more cost efficient mass transit becomes. The same is not true for the reverse.

The free market will indeed dictate how people travel. As the cost of energy goes up people will eventually shift to more cost effective ways of travel - or they will simply travel less. The cost of oil closed above $70 today; an increase of more than 40% in just the space of a few months. When the economy really begins to recover it will likely run head on into rapidly rising energy costs. National park visitation will be affected.

I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers from, but $1.34 per passenger mile for autos seems highly inflated. Numbers from DOT, Federal Highway Administration, and Bureau of Economic Analysis show the cost to be $0.22 per passenger mile. Even when social costs are factored, using data from a study by UC economist Mark Delucchi, driving costs rises to 29.3 cents per passenger mile, a far cry from the seemingly invented number you reference.

"Transit also has social costs. Buses produce far more ozone-producing air pollution per passenger mile than cars. The coal-fired power plants needed to supply electric rail transit with energy also pollute. Total social costs might be less than for cars, but they are still more than zero."

Transit is currently very inefficient and is only "affordable" because of heavy subsidies. It's hardly a "free market" alternative.

Get government bureaucrats, central planners, and social engineers out of the transit, and the cost might come down. We might see fewer trains to nowhere and fewer projects that go billions over budget.

Wishful thinking.

This certainly has evolved into an interesting discussion.

Perhaps to nudge it in a slightly different direction, but one with great significance for the parks, I'd like Frank to outline his vision of a traffic-free, facility-free national park system. For instance, would visitors be dropped off at gateway communities and have to walk or ride horses into parks? What would be done with all the existing infrastructure, ie roads and buildings? Would there be a threat that, if folks couldn't enter parks except by their own muscle power, the park system would lose its constituency and hence its relevance?

While I certainly appreciate wilderness for its limits on human-engineering, I wonder how national parks could survive without some form of ready access.

While Ed Abbey's view of what the park system has become strikes a chord with many, is there not a need for some balance between pure wilderness and visitor-friendliness in the park system?

While Ed Abbey's view of what the park system has become strikes a chord with many, is there not a need for some balance between pure wilderness and visitor-friendliness in the park system?

Kurt, the answer lies in the free market, which provides a Wal-Mart for some and Whole Foods for others, the Escalade and the Prius, Ballpark Franks and free range chicken. The park system is no different and if it were to transition to different forms of stewardship, beyond the limits of petty political partisanship and the current corporatist governmental administration, I think you would see this ideal of a balance emerge in a much more natural and efficient way.

I know most NPT readers are passionate defenders of the present system of federal oversight with its multi-leveled bureaucracy and Congressional pork trough. They think the free market is full of vicious wilderness rapers and vile exploiters of our sacred lands, but the truth is that many of the crown jewel parks were the direct result of millionaires who possessed a deep sense of earnest philanthropy towards their fellow citizens.

It's a broken record of mine, but I intend to keep playing it. The free market works better.

Besides, the Bozos on the Potomac are now flat busted broke. They will not be able to take care of much as soon as the world stops buying their worthless debt. (Which is coming to a theater near you very soon!) It's high time we plan to get new stewards of the nation's treasures before they are sold off in a debt induced fire sale.

I don't have any statistics in front of me, but I thought that the number of visitors in the major national parks had been decreasing for years. Maybe the economy simply amplifying a long term trend.

"I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers from, but $1.34 per passenger mile for autos seems highly inflated." Frank C.

Did you check the link included in my previous post?

Beamis, not sure I'd like to toss the National Park System open to the likes of Wal-Mart and watch where the chips land. Should the national parks be viewed as nothing more than merchandise on the shelf and we simply adjust the pricing to move it?

I prefer to think that parks really are special places that capture both spectacular landscapes as well as poignant moments in the country's history that should be preserved for the entire country for what they represent and what they stand for. I'm not sure the free market is capable of doing that. Think snowmobiles in Yellowstone would still be an issue a decade later if the park's managers only had to cater to one constituency?

That said, I wouldn't mind lopping off some units and looking for efficiencies from top to bottom across the system.

Kurt,

You raise many good points, and it's the next-to-the-last day of the school year, and I'm totally drained, so I probably won't address them all.

But consider that many visitors already view national parks as "nothing more than merchandise on the shelf." I've worked my share of concession-managed parks and have seen people spend more time in the lodge and tacky gift shops--buying cheap plastic crap from China--than they've spent at the Grant Tree, for instance.

With the free market--and conservation trusts--at least most of the revenue would support park operations, and shareholders or members would be rewarded for investing in parks. As it stands now, some large multinationals siphon profits away from parks, returning only a minuscule percentage for the services they receive from the federal government. We've had this conversation before, and I don't expect to convince you. I'm a squeaky wheel.

As far as cars in parks go, my thinking is constantly evolving and I'm constantly questioning my beliefs. My vision of a traffic-free, facility-free national park system resembles what Jack Turner described in The Abstract Wild and what Edward Abbey details in his polemic on industrial tourism in Desert Solitaire.

But Beamis makes a good point about how a natural and efficient balance would emerge without central planners at the helm.

That's all for now. Papers to grade.

Kurt--

I am interested in your comment that you are in favor of "lopping off some units and looking for efficiencies from top to bottom across the system." The problem with that kind of statement is who is going to do the lopping? What you miight consider "lop-worthy" I might consider one of the real jewels of the National Park System. And again, I would like to mention that each generation of Americans adds to the National Park System what its members feel merit protetion in perpetuity. As a matter of generational equity, I believe we owe these areas the highest standards of care. And once the lopping begins, where does it stop?

No, I can't get behind that idea. Looking for efficiencies is another problem. What is wrong with the various "core mission" and "competitive sourcing" studies is that they look at the wrong problem. What we should be striving for is effectiveness. Once we achieve that, we can work of being efficient at being effective.

I lived through various reorganizations of the NPS, all designed to make us more efficient. Not one of them made us more effective. In fact, the opposite almost always happened; we became less effective. The real goals of every park are to preserve and protect resources, provide high qualiity visitor services, and to maintain effective relationships with park stakeholders. If the park staff can achieve those three goals, then that park doesn't belong on your "lop list".

Rick Smith

Rick,

I'll grant you that "each generation" deserves to add what "its members feel merit protection in perpetuity," but I fear that's not always what transpires.

The First Ladies National Historic Site? Does this merit protection in perpetuity, or was it a pet project of an Ohio congressman who put his wife in charge?

Steamtown National Historic Site? I love trains, but couldn't this be run by an NGO or even a private company? There's a world-class firearms museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, that would be worthy of NPS designation but I would hope Wyoming's congressional delegation doesn't introduce legislation to that effect.

Friendship Hill National Historic Site? A site dedicated to a secretary of the treasury?

Greenbelt Park? A campground whose website describes such things to do as visiting NPS sites in Washington, D.C., 13 miles away?

Out of 391 units, I would guess that there are more than the above four sites that were added to the NPS not because a generation of Americans wanted them preserved for perpetuity but rather because a member of Congress wanted an NPS unit in their home districts.

I sense at times that there is no firm measuring stick for what is added to the park system and what isn't. More so it seems to come down to how much seniority the congressperson who is introducing the measure has. It's kind of like the NFL or MLB hall of fames. Once you start letting in every placekicker or shortstop with a .250 batting average and nary a Gold Glove in sight the entire hall loses its luster.

Frankly, until Congress figures out how to properly fund the Park Service so it can manage the sites it already has, I wouldn't object to a moratorium on additional sites.

As to better efficiencies, perhaps you're right that a better word would be "effectiveness." I don't believe in farming out programs just to save money. I believe the Park Service has a strong science mission that should be invested in and used to the benefit of the entire country. I also don't believe volunteers should be behind the desk at visitor centers.

But I've also read comments on the Traveler and heard from others that money spent in the system is not always done in the name of either efficiencies or effectiveness. Shouldn't we taxpayers demand that those matters are looked into?

Well said Kurt. The political spoils system is not the best way to measure actual need or effectiveness. Let's hope something new comes along to replace the clearly broken system now in place.

Very well said, Kurt !

Quite a few of the units, should be either private or run by other entities. To me, National Parks are so very special and should be well staffed and taken care of !!!
It waters down all of them with the pet projects that become National Parks. If we do not get the "National Park house" in order, we may well lose so many things that make them exceptional and in no other place in our nation.

As someone who grew up in Port Angeles, WA, and so want my child to enjoy the Olympic National Park, and specifically for this comment, Sol Duc Hot Springs, I am outraged at the extortion that the ONP is supporting in the concessionaire Aramark. We spent many summers up there in the old cabins (gone now), my single working mother taking five kids, our one getaway. We had very little money but this was something she could do for us. Now, if I want to take my son up there to enjoy it, as of this writing, thanks to Aramark, it will cost me $200. a night for a cabin. The cabins now are bare bones, sometimes with other "guests" in them. This is outrageous. A so-called offer for 10% off one night (and more for more nights) was found to not work at all on a Monday night that was said to have a lot of availibility. I commented to Aramark but received no reply. To make it worse, ONP offers no reservation system for the nearby campgrounds which makes it impossible for anyone that works for a living to repeatedly show up hoping for a spot. Are these parks not for all of us? Why is it only rich and nonworking people get to enjoy these parks?

Actually, the 2009 rate for a cabin without a kitchen is a little less than $150 per night plus tax that adds another $15. Ten years ago these same cabins rented for $92, so they have increased in price about 55 percent over the last decade. That is about 4 percent annually. Also, consider that cabin rental includes unlimited use of the mineral pools. We have stayed at Sol Duc four or five times and I am unfamiliar with having to take a cabin that has other guests. We did have mice in our cabin at Grant Grove in Sequoia National Park, so I guess they could be considered other guests even though they weren't paying. I would call the cabins at Sol Duc "plain" but not bare bones. They are certainly nicer than some of the cabins we have stayed in at other national parks.

Good God! $150-200 a night for a bare bones cabin with no amneities. That is the price of a nice hotel room for a night. Why pay such an exorbitant price?

I guess the is limited supply and the people paid that price but no way would I do so. I rather stay in the NPS lodge , many are very nice in the west or in tent which is cheap.

Actually the most I paid for a motel/hotel room is about $120 for vacation. I rather save the money for gas to travel farther or for entertainment. I paid less than a $100/night in the Florida Keys when I took my son to go snorkling and diving. We saved the money to go on the dive boats in Pennekamp and for food. The motel also had a pool which is normal so that was a nice way to cool down. The room is only for sleeping and I do not want to spend that much for sleeping quarters.

Now I have paid $125/night for a room in VT but that included the lift ticket and breakfast so I thought is was a good deal.