Campsites At National Parks ‘Harder Than Getting Beyonce Tickets’

10:22 minutes

a landscape shot of yosemite national park with three people on a winding road
National Park camping reservations have become immensely popular—but bookings aren’t equal for everyone. Yosemite National Park is starting to use a lottery system for some campground sites. Credit: Jeff Hopper/Unsplash

Access to the outdoors has long had an equity problem. Whether it’s the expense of equipment or hostility from fellow hikers, marginalized groups have had more barriers to enjoying recreation in nature.

Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration has data on one tool that was supposed to improve access for more people: the online system of reserving campgrounds at national parks. Compared to people camping at first-come first-serve campsites in the same parks, the people who successfully use the reservation systems are wealthier, better-educated, and more likely to be white.

Ira talks to research co-author Will Rice about the factors that make reservations harder to access, how wealthier people succeed in working the system to their advantage, and how publicly-funded campgrounds like the national parks could more fairly manage rising demand.

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Will Rice

Will Rice is an assistant professor of Outdoor Recreation and Wildland Management at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Memorial Today is coming up. Camping season is kicking off. Maybe you’re planning to head to your nearest national park. Well, if you’re lucky, you might already have a reservation for a campsite in one of your favorite spots– could be Yellowstone, Shenandoah. You might have made that reservation online at the website recreation.gov.

But getting lucky may be getting harder, especially if you’re lower income, less well educated, or a person of color. Here with me now is a researcher who has studied the issue. Is reserving a campsite online equally accessible to everyone? And his conclusion– not so much. Dr. Will Rice is an assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana in Missoula. Welcome, Will.

WILL RICE: Thanks, Ira. Really happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, so how hard is it to get a national park camping reservation?

WILL RICE: It’s pretty difficult. I tell my students that it’s– I don’t have the data to back this up, necessarily, but it’s probably far easier to get Beyoncé tickets.

IRA FLATOW: Really? It’s that difficult?

WILL RICE: It is, yeah. So recreation.gov released a statistic last year reporting that on a given day in a popular campground, a federally-managed campground, they can see up to 19,000 people vying for 57 campsites. And that’s just as soon as the reservation opens.

So for those folks who are at their computer at 8:00 or 10:00 AM waiting for that reservation to open six, three months in advance, two weeks in advance, whenever it opens– you have a 0.3% chance of getting that campsite. That’s just if you have the free time to be at your computer to try to get that reservation. So it’s quite difficult.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s important. And that’s what you talked about in your study. You looked at cell phone data to assess who is using what kind of camping reservation system at national parks, either online reservations or first come, first serve. Tell us what you learned about that.

WILL RICE: Yeah, so we looked at folks camping in the same campgrounds, same national park campgrounds, at the same time. And the only difference between these campers, as you mentioned, is how they got into that campsite, whether they showed up and got a first come, first serve spot or a reservation-only spot. And we found that those folks camping in campsites that require reservations were coming from home locales with significantly higher median household incomes than those camping in the first come, first serve campsites. And in the one urban-proximate location we studied just outside Washington, DC, those camping in campsites that required reservations were coming from home locales that were significantly whiter, on average, than those camping in the same campground, but in the first come, first serve sites.

IRA FLATOW: And so what do you show this disparity to be from?

WILL RICE: It’s free time, right? Like, if you have a job that allows you to have more free time, or you have a larger network of friends, and within that network of friends, folks have the free time to be on recreation.gov as soon as those reservations become available, that’s a possibility. Internet speed– again, if you have a 0.3% chance of getting one of these campsites, having faster internet’s certainly going to give you an advantage.

Or simply institutional knowledge, so knowing that you have to make these really far in advance, which is becoming a pretty recent phenomenon. So there’s lots of anecdotes when you’re traveling around to the parks, people saying, oh, in 2015, I just showed up and got a campsite. Now I didn’t know I had to book it this far in advance.

And especially as we enter an era of outdoor recreation where more and more people are interested in outdoor recreation, in some ways inspired by the pandemic, they might not have– especially if they haven’t been doing outdoor recreation entire lives, they might not have that institutional knowledge to know that I actually need to go and get a reservation six months in advance, or I have to have a job that allows me to plan six months in advance. That’s extremely difficult as well. And a lot of folks don’t have jobs that give them that security to say, I will be able to get off, six months in advance.

IRA FLATOW: I know you’re in Missoula, which is a popular city for outdoorsy folks. Have you seen yourself how wealthier people are using their existing advantage to secure those valuable reservations?

WILL RICE: Yeah. And this is something that’s pretty broadly known. I mean, this is a problem that the National Park Service recognizes and is trying to amend.

But one of the behaviors is, let’s say you are able to get on directly when the reservations open, and let’s say you don’t want to be crowded in your campsite. People are booking the campsites on either side of the campsite they plan to stay in in order to give themselves a little buffer room. Or if they want freedom to say, oh, I think I want to go out whenever the weather’s just right, or I’m on a road trip and I don’t know exactly when I’ll get there– they’ll book it for two weeks and just stay there one night during those two weeks. And then for those other 13 nights, the campsite sits vacant, and folks who would want to use that campsite cannot.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re booking twice or three times as many spots as they need, and they’re booking for time they’re not going to use it. Wow. And are national parks doing anything about this?

WILL RICE: Well, they’re trying. It’s hard to say, oh, you don’t need those three campsites when someone’s making a reservation. So these are really tricky tools from a web development standpoint, with rec.gov trying to come up with creative solutions, coming up with– in some ways, the demand for camping is outpacing camping policy, which is actually an emerging topic of conversation nationally. Right now, we’re just dealing with this wicked problem that’s affecting a lot of people. 2/3 of North American residents camp. And so this affects the majority of US residents.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. As the saying goes, there’s always an app for that. So there must be an app for booking campsites, right? I mean, would that make it easier? Or does that exacerbate the problem?

WILL RICE: Well, in some ways, it exacerbates it. So we have rec.gov, which is a relatively user-friendly app. It’s a really well-developed website. But then there’s also additional websites. There are campsite cancellation notification services.

So if, let’s say, you want to camp in a campsite in Yosemite National Park over this weekend but there’s no current availability, they will notify you as soon as a cancellation is made or as soon as reservations become available for the dates you want to camp. But for many of those services, they’re charging a premium, a subscriber fee. Some people can’t pay for those. So these notification services, for instance, might charge $10 a month in order to notify you whenever a campsite becomes available.

And just knowing that those are out there and some folks have that advantage could be– based on the outdoor recreation literature we know more broadly, just having that knowledge that you don’t have that advantage could be pushing some people to say, well, I don’t even have a shot. First of all, I have a 0.3% chance of getting one of these campsites, and now there’s people who have this advantage they’re able to pay additional money for. Like, why would I even try?

IRA FLATOW: We’ve talked on this show about the overall inequities in access to the outdoors, where national parks are already more likely to be patronized by richer, whiter folk. Is it just the online reservation system?

WILL RICE: Well, first come, first serve allocation strategies are not this panacea answer, either. Our study just showed that they tended to have more equitable distribution than online reservation systems. But there’s no perfect solution here. For instance, in our study, we conclude that, potentially, the Park Service should continue exploring and piloting different types of creative lotteries to allocate campsites, because we tend to find those to be more equitable in terms of distribution. But they’re not perfect, either.

So that’s really why I allude to this as a wicked problem. This isn’t climate change. This isn’t the drought we’re experiencing in the West. But this is a serious problem that’s affecting a lot of people. And it’s one, from a social science perspective, that’s really difficult to crack, because we just haven’t discovered that perfect solution.

IRA FLATOW: Well, these are the national parks. All of our tax money, right, pays for this.

WILL RICE: That’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: This should be something that would be equally available to everybody. Is there a strategy? This is not like big business trying to rip you off, or as much as they can, for a Beyoncé ticket. Shouldn’t there be a way that we can all have an equal access to this?

WILL RICE: Yeah, I mean, that’s the goal, right? And so in my field of leisure studies, there’s folks who study hospitality and tourism management. And those folks are like, why don’t we just raise the price? Well, this is a public good, right? We’re supposed to be provisioning these, as you mentioned– the mandate is for all Americans.

And so yeah, it makes it really difficult. And we don’t have that perfect solution right now. And that’s why we’re really calling for, in our paper, a really strong effort from the Park Service and other federal land management agencies to invest in the research that’s going to be required to help overcome this problem.

IRA FLATOW: But let’s talk about that. How much research is there, actually, on camping? I understand there’s hardly anything in the literature, right?

WILL RICE: Yeah, that’s what’s so wild. So camping has just fallen through the cracks in terms of research. This is maybe the fourth paper I’ve written on camping. And each time we go to write the literature review for these papers, and it’s like the literature is so sparse. And I think part of that’s because it falls between the cracks of these different disciplines.

But for as big of an industry as it is, for as many people that do participate in this activity, it’s incredibly under-researched. And for instance, just in campsite allocation, that this study examined, we were only able to find one general technical report from 1976 the Forest Service produced that looked at inequities in campsite allocations. This is the second study that’s even examined this.

And the findings I don’t think are shocking to people. I think people knew this was going on. But now we’re able to provide the data to really show that this is an inequitable system.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great luck. May the campsites be with you in your research.

WILL RICE: Thank you so much, Ira. Really appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Will Rice, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Copyright © 2022 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More