There are units of the National Park System, such as Canyonlands, North Cascades, and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, just to name three, that have little or no lodging within their borders. It's just such a lack of facilities, believes Derrick Crandall, that serves as a drag on visitation to the park system.
Parks with little or inadequate lodging, he maintains, have limited allure with the traveling public.
The argument raised by Mr. Crandall, the counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association as well as president and chief executive offer of the American Recreation Coalition, is not unlike many made nearly a century ago, when the thought of a "national park" was just beginning to germinate with politicians, the general public, and business leaders.
In 1911, leaders of the American Civic Association described travel, at the time primarily by rail, to the small handful of parks that then existed as the "dignified exploration of our national parks," as Alfred Runte notes in National Parks: The American Experience. Richard B. Waltrous, the association's secretary, reached out to the preservationists of the day to support travel to the parks, noting "the direct material returns that will accrue to the railroads, to the concessionaires, and to the various sections of the country that will benefit by increased travel" as a way to both draw attention to the parks and to actually help preserve them, Mr. Runte pointed out.
That same summer, Mr. Runte noted, Interior Secretary Walter Fisher announced the federal government's first conference on national parks, to be held at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, saying "the way to start this conference is with the question of how we are going to get to the parks?"
While there are many ways to reach the national parks these days, Mr. Crandall maintains that the general infrastructure of the parks is still lacking even as the National Park Service draws near its centennial in 2016. During a recent House subcommittee meeting he requested that Congress work with private businesses to develop "architecturally outstanding" and "enduring" facilities that would lure more visitors to the parks.
"While visitation to showcase parks remains stable, many other units of the National Park System offer wonderful experiences but are highly underutilized," he said in his testimony (attached). "In many cases, these less-visited, high-potential parks have limited visitor services, and this is an area we urge the Congress to examine. Some have argued that in today’s complex, fast-paced world, even if we build new facilities in these park units, people might not come. We can tell you that the evidence seems conclusive: if we don’t provide park lodging, restaurants and more, people won’t come and the relevancy of parks to our society is threatened."
In a follow-up conversation with the Traveler, Mr. Crandall elaborated on his testimony, saying that lodging capacity in the National Park System has not kept pace with either the growing number of units in the system or the growth of the American population. That lack of capacity, he maintained, is a prime reason why visitation to the system has been relatively flat.
"I think there’s significant awareness that if in fact we want to encourage continued relationships between the national parks and the American public, we can’t do that if fewer and fewer people are coming to the parks," said Mr. Crandall. "And right now we’re looking at a 25 percent increase in the number of Americans, and a park decrease in terms of the number of visits, and that I would say is not a good situation, especially when you’ve grown the park system by 20 percent in terms of units.
“This year, visitation will be down 2 percent. You’re seeing at some of the units where there is a higher level of visitor services, that’s where you're seeing the people go," he continued, nodding to the strong numbers at such parks as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier. "It’s also a reality that Americans go where they hear about, either where they’ve been or where they see some kind of effort in the way of marketing and promotion and I would say the concessionaires, because they do market and promote those parks with visitor services, help to ensure that in fact visitation to the parks you just cited are if not record are at least, certainly they have high levels of visitation."
The National Park Service seemingly has yet to develop a concise and accurate method for counting visitors. Currently, it's hard if not impossible to say with any confidence which course visitation is following, up or down. That said, it's no secret that the agency at times has struggled to keep up its lodging facilities, which in most cases are leased, not owned outright, by concessionaires.
Many of the grand dames of park lodging are approaching, or have passed, 100 years in age, and that age can readily show through. At Mount Rainier National Park the Paradise Inn was closed in 2006 for a two-year period for a top-to-bottom rehabilitation. At Glacier National Park the Many Glacier Hotel has remained open during the high summer season while much-needed repairs were made to address structural and utility woes. Sweeping rehabilitation projects have also targeted Lake Hotel (a 10-year project between 1981 and 1991 accomplished much-needed repairs and improvements) and even the Old Faithful Inn (the 1990s saw many rehabilitation projects in the inn) in Yellowstone, and now Yosemite officials are debating how best to make needed repairs and improvements to The Ahwahnee Lodge.
Quicker acting than age on facilities can be natural events, such as the hurricanes that battered the Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park back in 2005; the lodge was razed last year. In these cases it can take the Park Service in some cases years to respond with suitable plans for replacements. Everglades officials now are considering a six-phase plan for returning visitor services to Flamingo.
Mr. Crandall understandably has a vested interest, in light of whom he represents, in getting Congress to agree that newer and better facilities are needed in the park system. And yet, there are others who maintain that minimal infrastructure is one of the hallmarks of the National Park System. That's not an unfamiliar argument. Not long after National Park Service Director Secretary Conrad Wirth announced his bold Mission 66 plan, one intended to improve national park infrastructure over a ten-year period, from 1956-1966, it received a great deal of criticism, according to Richard West Sellars, a long-time Park Service historian and author of the acclaimed Preserving Nature in the National Parks, A History.
Concerns included the inappropriateness of the location and the appearance of visitor centers and other tourist facilities, the amount of road construction, the design of roads, and whether highways should wind gently through park scenery or provide for high-speed traffic.
To many, the major objection of Mission 66 was that it tended to modernize and urbanize the national parks. In Everglades, for instance, the dirt road to Flamingo, forty miles from the park entrance, was paved early in Mission 66, thus opening the heart of the park to heavy tourist traffic. As described by Devereaux Butcher, a longtime critic of national park management, the small cluster of structures at Flamingo became like a 'fishing-yachting resort of the kind that is a dime a dozen in Florida' -- including a sixty-room motel, a large restaurant, a marina with accommodations for large boats, marine equipment sales, rentals for outboard and inboard boats (including houseboats), and sightseeing operations for daily tours of the park's Florida Bay. This development not only resulted in the dredging of part of Florida Bay to provide access for larger boats, but also required regular transportation of supplies and equipment by truck along the park's newly improved road, in addition to increased visitor traffic.
While Mr. Crandall his testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands cited The Ahwahnee in Yosemite and El Tovar in Grand Canyon National Park, two of the highest priced lodges in the entire system, as examples of the sort of park-appropriate architecture he envisioned, during his telephone conversation with the Traveler he said that there's a need for lodgings at all price points, and not just in the 58 "national parks."
“I sure think that what we have to do is get off the focus of just the 58 national parks and understand there are 392 units. A lot of what we’re talking about is expanding the visitor services in other units, that are not your Yellowstones and Yosemites, and really where the public doesn’t have very much in the way of help in terms of enjoying the great outdoors," said Mr. Crandall.
“We’re talking about places like Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, which I think is a great candidate for some better lodging and other kinds of visitor infrastructure than they currently have," he said. "What we really have never done is look at what does it take to distribute the visitorship across the park system. What can we do to provide high quality park experiences in all of the 392 units? Sometimes it won’t be any kind of infrastructure inside the park itself. It can be done in gateway communities."
Mr. Crandall said his vision includes both replacing existing facilities that have overstayed their usefulness and adding to the number already found in the parks.
"I don’t know if you’ve been to Lake Mead recently, but the in-park lodging at Lake Mead should never be there. I think there could be some lodging at Lake Mead, but certainly it needs to be a park-appropriate design as opposed to what’s there," he said. “In other cases we’re looking at either new units or units that have the potential to provide a lot more service, a lot more experiences, and with some LEED-certifiable, ADA-compliant structures, I think the public will be well-served.”
Looking to the Many Glacier Hotel, Mr. Crandall noted its historic significance -- the Great Northern Railway built the hotel between 1914 and 1917 to cater to its customers -- on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, but also questioned why the Park Service is spending so many taxpayer dollars to bring it up to code and comfort.
“I think it’s very appropriate," he said of the rehabilitation project under way. "I think that we shouldn’t be spending $30 million of appropriated capital there. I think that could have been done, should have been done, the way it was first built, with private capital."
While not calling specifically for the Park Service to have razed Many Glacier and started anew, Mr. Crandall said that should have been part of the conversation when park officials were examining options for addressing the hotel's needs.
“I think that needs to be part of the consideration. I think it’s certainly a historic structure and you hate to lose a historic structure, but with the problems they’ve had with the foundation, problems they’ve had with the design and just the operation of Many Glacier, I think you would have to give some consideration to whether there would be better use of capital to actually replace that structure," he said.
“I’m not telling you that I favor that. I’m saying that should have been a consideration.”
When asked how he would balance the argument that many of the national parks should be left in their natural condition against the one for more infrastructure, Mr. Crandall voiced the opinion that there is room enough for both.
“I don’t think the Ahwahnee Hotel ... in any way deteriorates from Yosemite National Park. I think you can find a balance," he said. "The truth in the matter is parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, 90+ percent of the park still is very close to a wilderness experience. It takes no time and very little energy to get beyond where there is any significant human presence.”