In a lockstep march to higher prices

Fair warning: this is a lengthy post, and would be much longer if I hadn’t already sketched out some of the context last October, in a post headlined “Can ‘dynamic pricing’ beget cartels?” It might help to read that before plowing ahead here, but in a nutshell, my basic premise was that the ongoing consolidation of online reservation systems is creating an opportunity—already widely common in the apartment rental business—for cartelization, with Campspot best positioned to take advantage.

Campspot has done nothing since then to dispel that possibility—indeed, just the opposite. And that suggests even higher prices lie ahead for RVers and campers.

Cartelization, briefly, means “an act by market participants to form an association to control or attempt to control generation, distribution, sale or prices” of a commodity or service—price fixing, in other words. It’s illegal in the United States, but that doesn’t mean established businesses don’t want it. They just don’t want to be caught at it. So a key understanding here is the realization that “market participants” may include not just primary players—campgrounds and RV parks—but also secondary parties who have some control over prices, with the consent of the primary players, but who don’t take direct payment.

Until recently, the possibility of price-fixing in the highly fragmented campground industry wasn’t a real concern. When I first got into this business, more than a decade ago, the FTC-fearing sages at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) would get all atwitter if campground owners at an ARVC event would start discussing or comparing rates, but that was an absurd overreaction. With upwards of 12,000 campgrounds scattered across the width and breadth of the United States, all but a comparative handful owned by as many individuals, the thought that there could be any meaningful collusion on prices—or anything else—was laughable.

But times have changed. It’s not that the campground industry is now more consolidated—it is, but still not enough for individual campgrounds to coordinate pricing—but that its reservation systems have moved inexorably to online providers. Whereas campgrounds and RV parks until a few years ago each had their own reservation systems, some so primitive they consisted merely of large wall calendars or complicated index-card assemblies, now virtually all use one of a dozen to 15 computerized service providers that enable campers to make reservations online.

As they became entrenched within the industry, such reservation systems promoted several pricing innovations that eventually overwhelmed resistance from campground owners who didn’t want to antagonize their customers. Cancellation fees, site-lock fees and larger up-front deposits have all become standard, but even more pernicious has been the spread of dynamic pricing, which eliminated the old rate sheets in favor of algorithmically-driven rates that vary according to supply and demand. One result is that even campground owners don’t know what their campers are paying at any one time—but they do know that their bottom lines have gotten fatter, so they’re only too happy to play along.

It’s important to understand that none of this amounts to price-fixing in a traditional sense, and indeed, an argument can be made that it’s almost the opposite. Although a campground owner may set an upper and lower limit for how much his reservation system charges for a site, the actual outlay by any one camper is outside his field of vision, so to speak. Moreover, that campground owner has only a vague idea, at best, of what a competitor 20 miles away is charging for a comparable site, never mind the rate charged by a campground at the other end of the state.

But there is someone who does know all that, and more: the reservation system provider.

Client campgrounds of most reservation system providers number in at least the hundreds, which is a good start but still not enough to efficiently drive prices higher. Campspot is another story. With more than 1,800 private parks in North America comprising approximately 200,000 sites, it has enough aggregated data from numerous unrelated clients to follow in the footsteps of a Texas-based company named RealPage and its proprietary algorithm, YieldStar, which has significantly increased apartment rental rates across the country . As detailed in an exhaustively researched ProPublica article, YieldStar  “suggests” optimum rates for thousands of open rental units each day—rates that often are significantly higher than the market rate, and frequently higher than experienced property managers believe are obtainable. And guess what? Over time, such “suggestions” have been adopted ever more readily.

That’s not to say that Campspot is doing something similar, but to suggest that its growing dominance increasingly puts it in a position to do so. And given the inexorable logic of market dynamics in a consolidating industry (meaning both RV parks and campgrounds and online reservation systems), some such outcome seems highly likely.

In that regard, two recent developments suggest that Campspot’s drive toward overwhelming its putative competitors is gathering steam. The first is its announcement Feb. 14 of “Campspot Accelerator,” unabashedly described as a “new revenue-driving feature” for campgrounds. Basically an advertising platform grafted onto the reservation interface, Accelerator “placements” are “intentionally selective and thoughtfully designed to create the most value for the consumer while maximizing the potential for the campground.” Translation: campers reserving sites through Campspot will be enticed to spend extra money, with a portion of the proceeds going to the campground.

Thus far, Campspot is offering two such “accelerators.” One is a partnership with RVshare, which connects RV owners and campers looking to rent an RV—which, okay. But the truly innovative offering is Sensible Weather, which is selling an insurance-like product that “reimburses a camper’s reservation costs when rain impacts their experience.” Claiming that weather “is the most stressful part of planning a camping trip,” Accelerator now offers to make the insurance available for purchase when booking “to help increase camper confidence and enhance the overall experience.”

This adds a whole new dimension to what reservation systems offer, and until other providers catch up, promises to give Campspot even more of a competitive edge in building its client base—and why wouldn’t an RV park owner jump at the chance? But Campspot isn’t just broadening its sales appeal by adding new revenue generators to its menu. It’s also getting a promotional assist from . . . wait for it . . . ARVC, the same organization that once upon a time got panicky when members asked each other about their rates.

Two days after Campspot made its Accelerator announcement, ARVC sent out a membership email blast with the subject line, “Save Time With Campspot.” The actual message, featuring a prominent ARVC logo over a Campspot picture of a happy couple looking at a laptop screen, started with: “Campground owners and operators love the time-saving, stress-reducing features of Campspot. In fact, you might even catch Campspot owners doing a little happy dance in front of their computers from time to time.”


The email goes on to tout Campspot’s grid optimization, provides a link for requesting a demo, and quotes a happy customer. It doesn’t mention any other reservation system provider, even though most, like Campspot, are Supplier Council Members of ARVC—and most provide similar grid optimization features. And it never acknowledges that this email was a paid advertisement, which most assuredly it must have been, because why else would it have gone out?

The bottom line is that Campspot is moving quite aggressively toward monopolizing the campground reservation business, raising the specter of still higher rates for RVers down the road. This move is being greeted with the ready compliance of campground owners who see nothing but more profit for themselves. And it’s happening with the ironic cooperation of ARVC, which apparently has pivoted 180 degrees from its once-overblown anxieties about price fixing.

Who would have thought that a backwoods industry like this would end up on the cutting edge of money-extraction practices?

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Climate refugees add to camp crush

The growing prevalence of battered RVs and tents as housing of last resort, crowding city streets, public lands and commercial campgrounds, has been recognized for some time as the inevitable byproduct of soaring rents and gentrifying real estate. But it’s not just higher costs that are contributing to America’s housing immiseration. A growing horde of climate refugees—a phenomenon long associated with Third World countries—also is becoming an inescapable part of the landscape, driven by extreme weather events that are growing in both number and intensity.

Last week the American Red Cross, which has among the most comprehensive overviews of national crises, reported it had responded to more than 80 separate disasters over the previous 100 days—some, it averred, accelerated by the climate crisis. “In the 1980s, we had an average of three billion-dollar disasters each year, while over the past five years the country has seen a six-fold increase and now averages 18 of them annually,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations for the Red Cross. “We’re now running major disaster operations nearly continually throughout the year, as our climate changes and extreme weather increases.”

The Red Cross’s observations were buttressed by a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau that concludes an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. were forced to evacuate their homes last year by extreme weather—some never to return. The estimate was extrapolated from 68,504 responses to a survey conducted Jan. 4-16 and is still considered “experimental,” as the bureau first started tracking displaced people only in 2020 and is still refining its methodology. Still, the scale of the problem it reveals has surprised and even shocked some observers.

“These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country. It’s appalling to see them in the United States,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told NBC News last week. “The United States is not in the least prepared for this. Our settlement patterns have not reflected the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”

High on that list for 2022 are the Gulf Coast states, where hurricanes displaced almost a million people in Florida—7% of the population—and twice that percentage in Louisiana. More than 22,000 homes were destroyed or received major damage just from Hurricane Ian. Meanwhile, atmospheric rivers on the West Coast displaced more than 250,000 in California, while tornadoes and other severe weather displaced hundreds of thousands more—more than 380,000 just in Texas—across the South. Indeed, the National Weather Service already has confirmed 123 tornadoes in the U.S. in 2023.

Most public officials, however, have not risen to the occasion—or have made the homelessness problem even bigger. In battered Florida, for example, where rents last year increased an average 24% in the largest metro areas, state legislators repeatedly diverted money from a trust fund meant to support affordable housing programs for other purposes. Meanwhile, the Orange, Osceola and Seminole school districts reported a one-year increase of 45% in homeless students, and a tent city of dozens of people has sprung up next to downtown Orlando.

Final 2022 figures for the U.S. overall are still being tallied, but it’s sobering to realize that in 2021, more than 40% of all Americans lived in a county that was struck by extreme weather that year. That percentage will almost certainly grow, and as it does, the population of suddenly homeless people will grow in lock-step. Some—perhaps a majority, for now— will be able to rebuild, but those with inadequate or no insurance, or whose livelihoods have been demolished along with their homes, will not.

And as this dynamic evolves, many recreational campgrounds will more closely resemble refugee camps. It’s already happening, in slow motion. And it’s not something “over there,” in an earthquake-devastated Turkey or a flood-swamped Pakistan, but right here at home.

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Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

There is great jubilation in New York’s Catskills region this week, on the news that KOA is walking away from a proposed 75-site glamping resort that faced growing local opposition. (See past posts here and here.) News of the unexpected about-face came in a terse three-sentence letter, dated Feb. 8, announcing that the company “has formally withdrawn its special use permit, site plan and subdivision applications.”

Signed by Jenny McCullough, senior director of marketing and operations for Terramor Outdoor Resort, the letter was received by the Saugerties planning board two weeks ahead of a meeting at which KOA was expected to respond to numerous concerns raised by area residents. “After careful evaluation, it was determined that the project did not meet criteria across several benchmarks to warrant moving forward,” McCullough wrote, without further elaboration. In response to subsequent emailed queries, McCullough gave assurances that the company has “no intention to resubmit at a later date,” but also confirmed that KOA still owns the 77-acre site and is “discussing our options internally” on how to proceed.

Planning board chairman Howard Post, meanwhile, responded to local residents by saying the board has “no idea” what KOA will do next. “Nothing to stop them from resubmitting,” he wrote. “They might sell . . . they gave no indication nor do they have to.”

But as it turns out, KOA/Terramor has bigger fish to fry—or bigger headaches with which to contend. Because even as it was plunging into the Catskills morass, it simultaneously was looking to develop a far larger and more ambitious project in the foothills of the High Sierra, just outside Yosemite National Park. Much more ambitious. According to the preapplication proposal it filed in December of 2021 with the Mariposa County Planning Board, KOA wants to build two resorts on a 993-acre property that straddles State Highway 140, a major access route for the park. The broad strokes include:

  • A KOA Resort would be located on 90 acres south of the highway, to include 400 full hook-up RV sites and 25 to 50 tent sites with water connections. A 10,000-square-feet building would house a check-in desk, restaurant, store, laundry, a meeting space and employee office space. Also located on the grounds would be a swimming pool and bathhouse, two playgrounds and “select employee housing.”
  • A Terramor Outdoor Resort would be built on 80 acres on the north side of the highway and would include 80 to 90 “conditioned glamping units,” also described as “tents [that] will incorporate standard amenities of a luxury hotel room including a full bathroom, electrical supply and climate control.” An 8,000-square-foot lodge would include a restaurant, meeting space and indoor pool, while other amenities would include a 2,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a 1,500-square-foot wellness/spa center. As with its neighboring resort, the Terramor property also would include “select employee housing.”
  • The two resorts would have a combined 100 employees and would expect to have 800 guests a day at the KOA resort and 200 a day at Terramor. The two facilities would have a total of 525 on-site parking spaces and would consume up to 51,000 gallons of water a day.

A preapplication is by definition conceptual and short on details, giving county planners an opportunity to list the specific information they will require in a formal proposal. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when KOA got around to its first public presentation, a “coffee and conversation” meeting in mid-June last summer, the discussion was still vague enough that it “left many members of the community uncertain and unhappy,” according to a report in the Mariposa Gazette. But not to worry: local residents were assured more details would be forthcoming in a meeting later that summer or early fall.

Nature had other ideas. Mere weeks after the kaffeeklatsch, the Oak Fire sprang up literally next door to the Terramor/KOA site and consumed more than 19,000 acres before being wrestled into submission in mid August. (The Oak Fire, it should be noted, occurred less than a mile west of where the even more substantial Ferguson Fire ravaged 97,000 acres in 2018.) Somehow, the fall public presentations never occurred; what did occur was a request from the Mariposa County fire department at a board of supervisors meeting for the county to bite the bullet and start supplementing the virtually all-volunteer fire fighting force with paid staff. Four of the county’s 13 fire stations are unstaffed because of declining volunteer levels, while the only paid fire fighters have been the chief and his deputy.

More recently, nature let loose with a second volley, this time with the torrential rains that battered California for much of January. The resulting floods and erosion were even more pronounced in areas with recent burn scars, such as those left by the Oak Fire, with roads washed away and local residents left stranded for days on end. As icing on the cake, it turns out that Mariposa is the only county in California that does not participate in FEMA’s federal flood insurance program.

KOA has made no public pronouncements about any of these developments, or how they may affect its plans. Nonetheless, it has yet to file a formal proposal with Mariposa County, casting further doubt on its announced plans to have three Terramor resorts up and running by 2025; the only existing Terramor is in Bar Harbor, Maine. Meanwhile, Mariposa residents opposed to KOA’s plans have turned to their Catskills counterparts for organizing pointers—and apparently may expect a shipment of no-longer-needed anti-Terramor lawn signs and posters that are being collected in Saugerties and Woodstock on their behalf.

There is one other ironic footnote to all this: as previously noted, KOA already had a campground in the Saugerties/Woodstock area that it could have repurposed as a Terramor with much less hassle, but which was sold to its glamping rival, Autocamp. KOA also had a franchised campground in Mariposa County, just a mile up the road from its proposed new development—but that too was sold, also to Autocamp. The 98-site Yosemite Airstream glampground had its ribbon-cutting in 2019.

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Good job numbers, but not for RVers

The jobs numbers out on Friday resulted in great giddiness in some quarters and foreboding in others. Giddiness because January’s 3.4% unemployment rate is the lowest the U.S. has seen since 1969, giving the lie to the nihilistic doomsayers who would have us believe we’re on the verge of economic collapse, the better to advance their agenda of more tax breaks for the rich. Foreboding because of the fear that low unemployment will push up wages, increasing inflationary pressures and possibly prompting more interest rate increases, finally pushing us into the recession that, yes, the nihilistic doomsayers keep predicting.

So which is it: Let the good times roll? Or hunker down for the coming storm?

For starters, it’s telling that the low unemployment numbers were coupled with news that the U.S. added 517,000 jobs in January, or almost three times most economists’ expectations. This increase was all the more startling because it was announced in the context of enormous—and enormously publicized—layoffs in the once high-flying tech sector, totaling more than 66,000 thus far in 2023. Yet that very contrast suggests why inflationary fears due to a strengthened labor market are overblown: the people getting laid-off are making multiples of what the new jobs are offering. As an economy, for the most part we’re trading high-paying jobs for low-paying ones.

Indeed, drill down into the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics establishment survey for January and you’ll find that employment gains were strongest at the butt end of the wage scale, in leisure and hospitality, up by 128,000 jobs. In other words, for every high tech worker making a six figure salary who lost his job, two jobs paying significantly less than the median wage opened up. And guess what? The month’s average hourly earnings for all employees on private, nonfarm payrolls rose a grand 10 cents an hour, or 0.3%. That means average hourly earnings for the past 12 months posted a total increase of 4.4%, which not only is not inflationary but isn’t even keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

But there’s more. Despite that 128,000 pop in leisure and hospitality jobs, employment in this sector still remains significantly below the pre-pandemic level three years ago this month, by 495,000 jobs, or 2.9%. Moreover, if you break down the leisure and hospitality category into its component pieces, the food services and drinking end of things—primarily restaurants and bars—claimed the lion’s share of the job gains, while accommodations gained a mere 15,000 or so.

Where do campgrounds and RV parks fit in all this? There’s no definitive way to answer that, because the sector is such a small piece of the overall pie that BLS can’t spit out meaningful numbers. But with “accommodations” being inclusive of hotels, motels, resorts and other transient lodging significantly larger than the campground industry, it’s fair to assume that very few of those employment gains are trickling down to your favorite RV park.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence—which, alas, is all we have—is that the labor shortage afflicting the campground industry for the past three years continues unabated. High-end properties that can afford decent wages may be fully staffed, and mom-and-pop campgrounds that can be operated by just one or two couples are getting along. But the vast middle between those two extremes is hurting for employees, and RVers this year will feel the consequences: more automated check-in procedures and less human contact, dirtier bathrooms and cabins, more unkempt grounds and fewer activities.

Of course, it doesn’t help that many of these campgrounds, snatched up by absentee investors trying to maximize returns, continue paying wages that haven’t kept pace with the pay scales at fast-food restaurants and big-box stores. (That’s the other part of the equation that often gets omitted when people fret that higher wages will cause more inflation: the alternative is to reduce profits—but what am I saying?) Campground jobs, because they involve so much interaction with the outdoors, are among the dirtiest and most physically demanding in the accommodations sector, but RV parks are still offering $14 an hour for housekeepers or $15 an hour for maintenance workers. Good luck with that.

Bottom line, the new job numbers are (mostly) good news for the economy, but mostly irrelevant for the campground sector. So no rational need for hunkering down (“rational,” because it’s folly to underestimate the role of irrational actors), but if you’re heading out to a campground this summer, best be prudent and pack adequate cleaning supplies and tick spray.

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Now you, too, can buy a campground!

One sign of a market top is when people with no relevant experience start hitting up strangers for money to fund a new venture—and getting it. Another is when that sales pitch is so arcane it requires pages of explanatory text just to describe its underlying premise. Yet another is when the goal of all that fundraising transforms a quotidian quest into an epic venture, as with the announcement issued Jan. 23 on the PRNewswire to let RVers know they could become part of a “member-led community unlike any other.”

Meet Travis John, self-described passionate RVer and founder of something called CampersDAO, which in his words is “focused on buying and operating the best RV parks in the world.” That’s right, the world. This ambitious undertaking will create “a global community of camping enthusiasts by merging blockchain technology with the great outdoors,” which presumably has been waiting for just such a moment. And the marriage of these two great forces will be consummated just as soon as CampersDAO attracts up to 10,000 investors willing to pump in a minimum of roughly $500 as Trailblazers or $1,000 as Pioneers, for a projected total investment of $8 million or so.

Oh, but there are a few wrinkles. This is not a stock offering. John is not offering secured bonds—or, for that matter, any kind of security at all. Membership in “the world’s first Web3 camping community” will be gained through purchase of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, priced in Ethereum at the time of minting. Put another way, CampersDAO—the DAO stands for decentralized autonomous organization—“uses the latest blockchain technology and an innovative business model to turn a membership into an NFT asset.” So if you’re looking to pile up some NFT assets, this may be just the play for you. Want to own a campground? Maybe not so much.

Let’s start this exercise in skepticism with the maestro himself, an Orlando, FL-based self-described entrepreneur whose various hustles—according to his LinkedIn account— include NewFutureRealty and NewFuture Digital, neither of which has any discernible online presence despite Travis John’s claims of having “experience building Web2 product and service businesses.” John also claims to be affiliated with Charleston, SC-based Healthycell, where he says he is “head of the tech stack, growth strategies and partnerships for a new patent-pending dietary supplement line using MICROGEL technology.” Healthycell actually does exist, although good luck trying to find out who owns it, and it actually does market Microgel products. Whether those products do much for you, on the other hand, is an unknown, as Healthycell scrupulously acknowledges that its Microgel statements “have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

On to all that geek-talk about Web 3.0, NFTs and DAOs, all of which also exist and none of which you’ll be able to explain to your grandfather—although John gives it a shot, burning up hundreds of perfectly good words in the attempt. But strip away all the techno-babble, and what it comes down to is that a DAO is governed by its owners, who are all the people who purchased its NFTs. One NFT, one vote—but vote for what? That depends, as John himself concedes, noting that “the degree of decentralization in a DAO can vary, with some being more decentralized than others,” depending on “the protocol it is built on, the importance of the protocol to the overall crypto ecosystem, regulatory factors, and the maturity of the organization.”

As for how that applies to John’s project, or what kind of protocol it will have, he hasn’t said yet. Maybe that will be made known by Earth Day, April 22, when John is planning CampersDAO’s official launch.

Assuming the sale is fully subscribed (it should be noted that John has yet to say what will happen to the sold NFTs if it isn’t), it’s doubtful there will be enough money to buy even one of “the best RV parks in the world,” much less a promised “network.” Eight percent of the NFT sale is scheduled to go to the NFT launch and a third of the balance will be used for operating costs, with the remaining $4.8 million to be held in reserve “to cover operational costs, RV park purchases and future growth.” Exactly what “operating costs” will necessitate spending several million dollars remains unspecified. And while $4.8 million will suffice to buy a decent campground, it won’t come even close to touching a world-class RV park—assuming that some of that money isn’t diverted to cover even more of those pesky “operating costs.”

As sketchy as all that sounds, though, it’s not without precedent. In fact, John seems to have gotten his brainstorm (as signaled by one of his LinkedIn “likes”) from a similar DAO launched just about a year ago, albeit in that case on behalf of the golfing world. LinksDAO raised nearly $11 million for the purpose “of purchasing a network of global golf courses while designing parallel experiences in the Metaverse”—a truly baffling aside that I’m not making up—as well as “building the world’s greatest golf community.” Founder Mike Dudas planned, at that time, to acquire LinkDAO’s first course by mid-2022 and open it for play by the end of the year.

To date, however, LinksDAO is little more than a buyer’s club for golf enthusiasts looking for discounts on clothing and gear. Indeed, as one DAO observer told a Forbes writer last February, such arrangements amount to little more than a “group chat with a bank account.” As for actually buying a golf course, LinksDAO acknowledged that additional funds will have to be raised. Moreover, it should be noted that owners of LinksDAO NFTs won’t automatically gain membership in any golf course that might be acquired—that will require a separate fee.

For all that, the LinksDAO’s NFTs were all snatched up within 24 hours of being dropped, suggesting at least one reason for Travis John’s enthusiasm. There’s every reason to think CampersDAO should be DOA, but that’s expecting too much from people who undoubtedly will clamor to join a member-led community unlike any other—which it will be.

As they say in Rome, caveat emptor.

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KOA amps up the camping con game

One of the KOA-Terramor glamping “tents” in Bar Harbor, Maine. Behind the wooden wall at the head of the bed is a shower with dual shower heads and a ceramic floor.

It’s mid-winter in New York, but the temperature was unseasonably hot when the Saugerties town planning board held a public hearing last week on a KOA-proposed 75-site glamping resort. Approximately 200 local residents turned out Jan. 17 and hooted their approval as a score of speakers—and one mischievous singer—detailed the many reasons why this is a deplorable idea. But while not a single business owner, politician or civic booster rose in defense of the project, KOA showed no sign of backing down, either, demonstrating yet again how far it’s departed from its folksy origins and how oblivious it has become to public opinion.

The Saugerties venture is KOA’s second attempt to diversify into the high-dollar end of the campground business, following an initial foray in Bar Harbor, Maine. That first effort converted a conventional KOA into a glampground under the Terramor nameplate, but while repurposing an existing campground avoided some troublesome issues, it created others. So, on its second go-round, KOA decided to find an undeveloped piece of land on which it could start with a clean slate. It settled on a 77-acre site between Woodstock and Saugerties. And then its problems began.

While initially slow to take notice and build support, the anti-Terramor movement in recent months has gained both momentum and sophistication. Fund-raising to hire scientific and legal talent by now has generated nearly $40,000. The group’s online presence is rich with documentation and resource materials. And its arguments are becoming more refined, homing in on what may be the project’s greatest weakness: an unyielding terrain.

“I think the real surprise for Terramor was not the neighbors. I think the surprise was that the blank canvas they purchased was on bedrock that made septic impossible, contained wetlands that made wastewater difficult to release and included an endangered species that needed a protected habitat,” said Susan Paynter, a leader of the local opposition. “The neighbors are the least of their problems.”

While all that is daunting enough, another argument still shaping up in Saugerties has more widespread implications: that all this talk about “glamping” is ultimately deceitful. That to describe a project as having “campsites” occupied by “temporary structures,” as KOA has done in its presentations, is at best disingenuous when those “temporary structures” have 600-square-foot footprints and are erected on wooden platforms with plumbing and electricity. The Terramor “tents,” while superficially qualifying for that label because the outer shell is canvas, have wooden interior walls, ceramic-floored showers with twin shower heads and, in some cases, a second bedroom in which to stick the kids.

In that respect, glamping “tents” are another aspect of the industry’s efforts, similar to its embrace of park model RVs, to push the limits on what kinds of dwellings it can erect with minimal tax and regulatory liabilities. “Temporary” structures—one because it has a canvas shell, the other because it still has wheels attached to its chassis—in most jurisdictions aren’t subject to real estate taxes. They don’t have to conform to zoning restrictions that would apply to fixed structures, and they don’t have to meet HUD or other housing regulations. And while glamping tents are less durable than park models, they can be larger (park models are limited to 14-foot widths and 400 square feet), are substantially cheaper and can be more readily tarted up as glamorous camping accommodations.

And for now, at least, they can charge novelty prices of $300 and up per night.

That lure is so great that the glamping silliness has exploded. Even as it battles the Saugerties crowd, KOA is simultaneously developing a third Terramor resort, also in New York, and this time it’s reverting to its original approach of converting a former KOA campground. The Lake Placid/White Face Mountain KOA in Wilmington, closed for the season in October, is now being “moved up the road” 2.4 miles, according to KOA, and will reopen in the spring—albeit with fewer than half as many sites. Meanwhile the former site, on Fox Farm Road, is being repurposed as a Terramor Outdoor Resort, with 80 glamping sites, a main lodge with a restaurant, a pool, pavilion, wellness cabin and staff housing.

The Wilmington plans, it should be noted, call for glamping sites that “will consist of both insulated tents and ‘hard-sided’ units,” which the design narrative explains are “to resemble a tent, but with walls and a roof” so they can be used in winter. In other words, ersatz tents of up to 900 square feet—hard-sided “tents” imitating “glamping tents” imitating the kind of tents that you can buy at REI, in a regressive progression whose next step can be nothing less than a motel shaded by a large piece of canvas strung from a series of telephone poles.

Meanwhile, underscoring that this is not just KOA running amok, its Bar Harbor Terramor Resort may be about to get some competition across the bay, in nearby Lamoine. Clear Sky Resorts, a glamping outfit based in Arizona, wants planning board approval for a 90-site “dome glamping camp” with an onsite restaurant, pool, spa, wedding venue and employee housing, but town officials kicked back its application earlier this month, saying it provided incomplete information about water and sewer use. Clear Sky supposedly will be back Feb. 6 with a second effort.

As with KOA’s “tents,” the camping domes Clear Sky wants to erect are huge—660 square feet—and an additional 13 domes intended for staff lodging, wedding venues, a restaurant and other uses presumably will be even larger.

Back in Saugerties, local residents are pushing the planning board to request a State Environmental Quality Review Act assessment from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation—an outcome that could result in KOA having to prepare a draft environmental impact statement. KOA has until Feb. 21 to respond to the volley of concerns it received last week at the planning board hearing, with board members saying it will take months to reach some kind of decision—so stay tuned. There’s more needless drama to come.

A Clear Skies “glamping dome,” which because of its shape (a 28-foot diameter) has an even bigger footprint than one of KOA’s glamping tents.

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Giddy times at the Tampa supershow

As waves of winter storms batter the Pacific Coast, the Rockies and the upper Plains, any friendly—dare I say amorous—thoughts about Mother Nature may be the furthest thing from the minds of the folks who live there. Not so in Tampa, Florida! As proclaimed in an RVBusiness headline, exhibitors at the Florida RV SuperShow are “rocking and rolling.”

This annual five-day RV orgasm, rapidly becoming one of the largest in the country, runs through Sunday and shows every sign of defying the downturn in RV sales that kicked in mid-way through 2022. Attendance has been at near-record highs, edged just a bit by last year’s extravaganza, when then-low interest rates and pandemic-unleashed tailwinds made RVing the newest “it” thing for American consumers. Aggressive interest rate hikes and possible market saturation for first-time buyers subsequently took the wind out of the industry’s sails, but now that corner may have been turned.

More than 1,300 RVs are currently on display, with an additional 1,500 or so owned by show attendees camped at the fairgrounds. Winnebago was offering test drives of its second-generation all-electric RV, still in the prototype stage, but all available time slots reportedly were booked days ago. High-end motorcoaches are a dime a dozen, liberally garnished with “wow” add-ons like Garmin total-control coach control systems, electronically controlled suspensions and blinged-out interiors. And custom builder SpaceCraft (?!?) Mfg. has trucked in a 54-foot converted semi-trailer that sports 10,000 watts of solar panels, 108,000 watt/hours of lithium battery storage and 485 gallons of water tanks—enough, says the company, to enable up to a month of off-the-grid camping.

Of course, first the thing has to be maneuvered into its boondocking paradise. That alone should limit the customer base. As will the price tag.

But it’s not just the big-ticket items that are drawing attention. RVers are swarming supplier displays as well, leading a Dometic brand manager to tell RVBusiness, “I would say I wouldn’t wait to buy something. If you see it and you think it’s cool, you should buy it, because it’s selling out.” Campground reservations also have been surging, according to Don Bennett of the Anderson Brochure Distribution Service, which distributes RV park brochures at trade shows. “I think the one thing that the pandemic has impressed upon not only the new campers but the seasoned veterans as well,” he said, “is to try to make reservations as early as possible, and I know a lot of campgrounds are seeing an uptick in reservations as of January.”

There is, in other words, a lot of excitement in the Tampa air this week—as is a certain fin de siecle feeling, as though too many people were rushing for too limited a supply of lifeboats. A surprising number of news accounts about the show include interviews with potential buyers looking to become full-timers. As one noted, even an upscale motorcoach “is still cheaper than a house,” which is a remarkable comparison to make on behalf of a depreciating asset. Meanwhile, the economy is still wobbling around the rim of a possible recession, an increasingly volatile climate is playing Russian roulette with campgrounds, and the owners of gas-guzzling behemoths run the risk of becoming the next generation of scorned wearers of mink stoles and sable coats.

It’s a mixed bag, in other words, and possibly not the best time to get swept up in the crowd’s euphoria. But it’s always hard to see a bubble from the inside.

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RV chickens coming home to roost

This may sound harsh, but the campground industry has an enormously uncomfortable relationship with Mother Nature: like the victim of an abusive spouse, it prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to its partner.

Two days after passing around a tin cup for donations to help campgrounds getting swamped on the West Coast, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) was at it once more, this time on behalf of campgrounds at the opposite end of the country. Proclaiming yet again that “When natural disasters strike, it’s in our nature to help,” the solicitation summarized the situation as follows:

At least eight people were killed on Thursday as severe storms and tornadoes left a trail of damage across the South. Ferocious winds sent residents running for cover, blew roofs off homes and knocked out power to thousands. The storms damaged power lines, severed tree limbs and sent debris flying into streets in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, where at least 35 preliminary tornado reports were recorded as of Thursday evening, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

All of which undoubtedly was true, as was a similarly generic recitation about the West Coast disaster—but in neither description was there any mention of an actual RV park or campground. The reader is left to assume that campgrounds were damaged, which is quite likely, but how many campgrounds or to what extent is left to the imagination. There are no human faces put on the tragedies for which ARVC is seeking a compassionate response, for the simple reason that ARVC doesn’t know them—nor does it really want to know them. Much better to leave this all on an abstract level.

That may sound harsh, but it speaks to the enormously uncomfortable relationship ARVC, and perhaps a majority of its members, have with Mother Nature. Like the victim of an abusive spouse, the campground industry prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to the relationship. Yes, there are problems, but we’ll keep those to ourselves—regardless of how unsustainable that may be—while presenting only a sunny face to the public. Anything else might be bad for business.

What throws this dynamic into sharp relief is the ironically concurrent news in the journal Science, published yesterday, that scientists at ExxonMobil “predicted global warming correctly and skillfully” more than 40 years ago. The peer-reviewed study found that Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much global warming would be increased by burning fossil fuels—“as accurate, and sometimes even more so, as those of independent academic and government models,” reported the New York Times this past Thursday.

Exxon’s corporate suite, no surprise, quickly put the kibbosh those several decades ago on its own research, casting doubt on its scientists’ work and cautioning against any move away from carbon-based fuels. Global warming projections “are based on completely unproven climate models or, more often, on sheer speculation,” the oil company’s chief executive assured a company annual meeting in 1999. “We do not now have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures,” he wrote in a company brochure the following year

ARVC, whose members rely on customers who drive vehicles of unenviable gas consumption, was only too happy to fan the embers of skepticism. Calls to reduce greenhouse emissions were premature, it declared in a 1998 policy, because of the “considerable uncertainty surrounding the theories on climate change.” What was needed, ARVC contended, was “more research, data collection and scientific analysis”—although presumably not by scientists employed by ExxonMobil. And guess what? Nearly a quarter of a century later, ARVC’s policy remains unchanged, as mired as ever in “considerable uncertainty,” even as its members watch helplessly as their campgrounds get inundated, leveled and swept away by pounding seas, tornadoes, mud slides and thousand-year storms.

And the tin cup gets passed around yet again.

To be clear, asking help for those unfortunate enough to be home when the chickens come to roost is both admirable and necessary. It’s just not enough. Aside from the disproportionate ratio of need to available resources, it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem. It doesn’t answer such fundamental questions as: who’s at risk? can that risk be managed? if not, what’s the alternative? is the current campground business model sustainable? if not, what changes—if any—can make it so? It essentially ensures that without such questions being asked, the pleas for help will only grow more bigger and more frequent.

One place to start changing this vicious spiral would be for ARVC to create a reporting system so it can quickly identify which campgrounds and RV parks may be affected by the latest extreme weather disaster—to put a face on the victims. Another would be to revisit its 1998 policy, in light of the past 24 years of “research, data collection and scientific analysis,” and figure out what a meaningful revision might look like. Yet another would be for ARVC to promote discussion among its members of a common threat, so it’s no longer seen as a taboo subject, the bogeyman whose name must not be uttered.

Most of all, it would help if ARVC and its members simply acknowledged that the love of their lives is sometimes abusive. The first step on the road to recovery, as any 12-step program participant will tell you, is to acknowledge that your life has become unmanageable.

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We’re not ready for the new normal

As California reels from a two-week series of storms that have claimed at least 18 lives, forced tens of thousands to evacuate and permanently altered the landscape, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) finally took notice yesterday with an email blast from its disaster relief foundation, requesting donations to help battered campgrounds. The solicitation was heralded with the bold statement, “When natural disasters strike, it’s in our nature to help.”

Well, maybe sorta.

While the jury is still out on the helpful nature of the industry’s recent wave of institutional investors, ARVC members’ recent track record of helpfulness is not reassuring. As I reported in a November post, mere weeks after dozens of Florida campgrounds were devastated—some terminally—by Hurricane Ian, the ARVC Foundation had dispensed slightly more than $20,000 in disaster relief for all of 2022. And Hurricane Ian was far from the only weather disaster to ravage the U.S. last year, as witness the following graphic (a larger version can be seen here):

Indeed, it’s ironic that ARVC jumped on the assistance bandwagon just one day after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released that map as part of a larger report on 18 U.S. weather disasters in 2022, each causing at least $1 billion in damage. That’s the third costliest such tally on record, trailing only 2017 and 2005, both those years also marked by severe hurricanes. Ian led the charge this time, with a $112.9 billion price tag contributing the lion’s share of a tentative $165 billion in total damages—tentative because the final total is still awaiting cost estimates from a year-end winter storm that could add as much as $5 billion. Oh, and lest we forget: those 18 supercharged weather events also caused 474 deaths. The price tag for those is incalculable.

Now we’re off to the races again, jump-starting the casualty and damage steeplechase with torrential downpours that are predicted to start tapering off over the next week or so. The destruction no doubt will exceed NOAA’s billion-dollar threshold for inclusion in the 2023 map, continuing a pattern that since 2016 accounts for more than $1 trillion in damage and more than 5,000 deaths. While the campground industry obviously is no more than a footnote on that balance sheet, it’s just as obvious that $20,000 in damage relief doesn’t begin to address the need. Yes, every bit helps for those lucky enough to get a donation. But let’s also acknowledge that such help ultimately is as futile as bailing out a lake with a tin cup, amounting to little more than feel-good virtue signaling.

What’s to be done? For starters, ARVC and the rest of the industry must step out of their glamping bubble, look around at the natural landscape, and recognize that the natural order of things really is undergoing a fundamental change. You can’t deal with a problem without first acknowledging that it exists. The blissfully mild and predictable weather patterns of 40 and 50 years ago are growing steadily more anarchic, and more recently have become downright nihilistic—not everywhere, and not all the time, but often enough to demand attention. Unfortunately, that means talking about a phenomenon that most campground owners resolutely deny is even a thing, much less something that requires a response from them.

Meanwhile, although ARVC might be expected to provide leadership on the matter, this is an organization that operates with a transactional business model: the things that get talked about must either a) strengthen the executive suite; or b) enable someone to sell something, be it a product or a service. EV charging stations currently are a hot topic not because of ARVC’s commitment to a carbon-free future, but because RV manufacturers are developing electric RVs that they won’t be able to sell if their customers won’t have any place to plug them in. Nothing wrong with that, any more than there was anything wrong with promoting on-line reservation systems or enhanced campground wi-fi capabilities—just don’t confuse all that with a policy-driven agenda.

So until either someone figures out a way to make money off natural disasters or ARVC has a come-to-Jesus moment about climate change, the tin cup response will be the default position—again and again. “Groundhog Day” comes to mind. So does that quotation attributed to Einstein about the definition of insanity.

Even redwood trees like this one, at Sue-meg State Park in Humboldt County, CA, are succumbing to the relentless wind and rain buffeting the Pacific Coast. Be glad you weren’t camping here.

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Lions, coyotes and wolves, oh my!

One of 80 signs warning of mountain lions in the area around Nederland.

My recent post about the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire in Colorado cited a U.S. Fire Administration report, issued last June, that raised the alarm about urban encroachment on undeveloped land. Titled “Wildland Urban Interface: A Look at Issues and Resolutions,” the report was an unabashed effort to “trigger a sense of urgency and motivation” about safeguarding exurban communities from wildfires.

It’s a report worth reading, but given its narrow focus, only scratched the surface of an increasingly complex subject. While the intrusion of human dwellings into wildland areas increases fire risks, “wildlands” don’t consist solely of vegetation: there’s fauna associated with that flora. And while wildfires can cause destruction on an epic scale—the Marshall fire consumed more than 1,000 homes—wild animals can be just as lethal in the number of human lives they claim. Moreover, predators increasingly are moving into fully urbanized areas, where they’re greeted with a mixture of fear and anthropomorphizing wonder that complicates an appropriate human response.

An extreme example of this phenomenon played out in Los Angeles last month, where a mountain lion known as P-22 was euthanized after spending more than a decade prowling the city—euthanized not to remove a potential threat to adults, children and pets, but because of its long-term health problems exacerbated by being struck by a car. The “bona fide celebrity,” as the lion was described in news stories, was finally trapped after reports that it had attacked three dogs within a month and had several near-encounters with hikers. Veterinarians found that the emaciated puma’s injuries from the accident included a skull fracture, an injury to its right eye, herniated organs and a torn diaphragm. But the lion also had lost about a quarter of its body weight and had heart, kidney and liver disease, a thinning coat and a parasitic infection—hardly the stuff of an uplifting “Born Free” sequel.

While news coverage of an apex predator’s life and death in the country’s second-largest city was inexplicably fawning, the problem of large wild animals penetrating towns and cities is growing coast to coast. The resulting human toll is still limited, although not negligible, but the worry is that increased habituation to humans coupled with growing wildlife population pressure will lead to more attacks. Pets, meanwhile, have decidedly more to worry about than do their owners.

As reported last week by the Colorado Sun, residents in and around Nederland, a Colorado town in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Boulder, have been complaining to state wildlife officials that mountain lions had killed 15 dogs over a recent 30-day period and have been stalking their horses. As one woman from nearby Rollinsville said, about an incident Dec. 26, “Our beloved Aussie shepherd was snatched off the porch by a massive mountain lion right in front of me as I ran to open the door. . . . I’m now scared for our children.” With an estimated four mountain lions per 36 square miles in an area that stretches from the Continental Divide to Interstate 25, more such incidents are all but inevitable. “That’s yeah. That’s a lot of lions,” as one wildlife manager acknowledged at a local meeting.

But mountain lions are only one among a handful of beasts with large teeth and claws adapting to the human landscape, a list that includes wolves, coyotes and black bears. And while all tend to avoid humans when possible, that aversion may be lessening with increased interaction among the species. Wolf attacks on humans are extraordinarily rare, for example, but not unprecedented. The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research recently compiled a list of 489 wolf attacks between 2002 and 2020 in North America and Europe, most by rabid animals, but also including 67 people who were victims of predatory attacks; nine of those victims were killed, for an average of one every two years.

Coyotes, meanwhile, historically far more wary of humans than either lions or wolves, have proliferated across the continent and appear increasingly capable of regarding people as a food source. After an aggressive pack in the Cape Breton Highlands killed a 19-year-old Canadian woman in 2009, followed by 32 other reports of “coyote-human incidents”— including seven in which people were bitten—a research project concluded that such emboldened behavior is a result of the pack acquiring a taste for larger prey. Because of changing environmental conditions that depleted the supply of the smaller mammals they usually hunt, the coyotes began to learn how to take down moose, which average 1,000 pounds apiece. Attacks on people “are at least partially the result of prey-switching,” concluded the study, according to an article last month in the National Post.

Although the Cape Breton coyotes may be an extreme example, the species is expanding by leaps and bounds elsewhere, and frequently in menacing ways. The Massachusetts coastal town of Nahant reportedly has at least a dozen coyotes that have grown increasingly brazen about going after pets, with some owners outfitting their dogs with spiked “coyote jackets” to repel attacks. Yet despite 500 or more coyotes killed in Massachusetts each year, the number keeps growing and coyotes are now in every part of the state except for the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Just how large a problem this can become is illustrated by South Carolina, where annual hunting and trapping has yet to make a dent in a population of 25,000 to 30,000 coyotes.

Meanwhile, the growth in black bear populations has been almost as remarkable, with current U.S. estimates ranging from 300,000 to twice that number. Although omnivorous, rather than carnivorous, and far more shy than their aggressive brown cousins, black bears are so ubiquitous that their encounters with humans are increasingly inevitable, with occasionally tragic consequences—and especially so if a bear cub is involved.

There’s other wildlife of varying degrees of concern, of course. Every year seems to include at least one story of someone becoming an alligator snack. Raccoons can be incredibly destructive of private property, but also pose an acute physical threat to anyone foolishly trying to ward them off. Muskrats, beavers, porcupines, skunks—the list of creatures that don’t mesh well with urban and suburban environments is extensive and often problematic. The problem is not that we share this planet with other animals, however—it’s that we don’t acknowledge their essentially wild nature. Too often we treat this wild element as something that exists for our amusement (see P-22 above), but we’re just as foolish when we perceive such animals as being on par with a tree or boulder—as just another piece of landscape.

A comprehensive understanding of the wildland urban interface must include more than trees, grasses and underbrush; it also must include the four-legged critters that call the woodlands home. It’s a wildlife urban interface, too, with obvious implications for every campground owner, boondocker, backpacker and other outdoor enthusiast.

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