Reflecting on what it means to camp

Now you see it, now you don’t, in this example of a so-called “invisible cabin.” Manufactured by ÖÖD House, an Estonian company, the site-ready 227-square-foot unit can be yours for $125,000.

In the relentless pursuit of the next hip thing—the next glitzy, must-have, “wow” experience to foist on the camping public—it was only a matter of time before someone took the concept of “smoke and mirrors” to its inevitable conclusion.

Cue the mirrors.

The high-gloss end of the travel and leisure press has been all atwitter about the upcoming debut of the Mirror Hotel, about 20 miles north of Asheville, NC, featuring 18 mirrored “cabins” on a 55-acre site. Unlike the more modestly-sized unit pictured above, these accommodations will include two-story 1,500-square-foot units perched on stilts, each equipped with its own hot tub, patio with fire pit and pizza oven. Mirror Hotel, owner Joanna Cahill told Travel + Leisure, “is built to be everything people love about glamping without everything they don’t.”

So this is glamorous camping: 15-foot tall windows to soak in the view at a Mirror Hotel “cabin.

Sheathing buildings in reflective glass, highly polished steel and one-way mirrors is just the latest example of high-end developers seeking to create wow factors and “memorable experiences,” and hang the expense. Or as related on the ÖÖD House website, when founders Jaak and Andreas Tiik “wanted to go on a weekend hike they didn’t want the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ hotel experience—that was too boring,” so they came up with the ÖÖD “Signature House.” In the seven years since that fateful walk, their glass boxes have spread across Europe, into Iceland and on to the U.S. and Mexico.

Initially adopted in limited numbers—no doubt because they require a significant investment—“invisible cabins” can be found a handful at a time in early-adopter glamping resorts in Ontario, Tennessee and South Carolina, where they’re pitched as exquisitely rare and cleverly non-intrusive. Stay at “a unique, bucket-list experience in an inspiring environment that is guaranteed to lift your spirit,” coos one come-on. Mirrored cabins “are designed to be virtually invisible in the surrounding landscape, allowing guests to feel as close to nature as possible,” extols another. In short, goes the sales pitch, here’s your chance to be a trendy voyeur of Mother Nature without having to step out of your comfort zone.

But despite such green-washing, environmentalists have been calling out the claims as deceptive and misleading. In recent weeks, when Shared Estates, a Massachusetts developer, announced plans to incorporate 19 mirror houses among 72 rental units at a “campground”— shamelessly named the Greylock Glen Ecovillage—it wants to develop outside of Adams, Mass., the Massachusetts Audubon Society weighed in to protest that the design endangers wildlife. “Mirrored glass presents a severe hazard to birds,” wrote Jeffrey Collins, a society representative, to the Adams Board of Selectmen. Although the developer had claimed that a UV coating on the glass would reduce bird strikes by 70%, Collins pointed out that several hundred million birds are killed in the U.S. each year by colliding with windows.

“Birds do not perceive reflective glass—standard or mirrored—as a fatal barrier,” Collins wrote. “The Mirror Houses are designed specifically to ‘disappear’ into the landscape by reflecting surrounding vegetation. While this is a creative design concept, it is one that will without doubt lead directly to bird deaths through window strikes.” Even a 30% mortality rate “feels like an unnecessary introduction of a known hazard into a site that’s designed around connecting people with experiencing nature,” he added.

Indeed—but that’s not really what the mirror houses are all about, anyway. While Shared Estates announced last week that it was scrapping the concept, it had claimed earlier that “the mirrored units are critical to the economics of the project” because of their over-the-top occupancy rates at other glampgrounds. Losing the mirror houses means a “significant hit” that may not be offset by turning to another “eco-structure,” Shared Estates added, and may force an overall reduction in the final site plan.

What it boils down to, in other words, is another ratcheting up of the untenable tension between “glamorous” and “camping” driven, as always, by a thirst for higher financial returns. Mirrored cabins, while undeniably sleek in an airport-lounge sort of way, are a good way to “get close to nature” only if you think that includes watching birds fly directly at the glass separating you and them.

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RVers adopt a wait-and-see attitude

It is a given that industry representatives will insist the sun is shining even as thunderheads pile up on the horizon—and really, who can blame them? But for everyone else, being lulled by rosy forecasts that ignore storm clouds can result in a good soaking. Or worse.

Having declared a month ago that the 2023 camping season was off to a strong start, which is demonstrably true, KOA went out on a limb by assuring the public that campers “are also starting to make solid plans for the rest of the year.” But “solid” requires some context. As previously reported, a year-over-year comparison of KOA’s surveys actually showed a remarkable softening: fewer than half as many campers had made reservations by February for this season as had in 2022 for that year.

The hesitation continues. KOA today released its March monthly report, flagged with the optimistic headline “Rise in camping continues” and citing strong camping turnout at the start of the year. But again it went a step too far, with senior vice president Whitney Scott announcing in a press release that “we’re seeing more bookings made earlier”—yet KOA’s own figures show that 27% of their survey respondents have booked some or all of their 2023 camping trip thus far this year, compared to 50% at this time last year.

There is, undeniably, strong interest in the idea of camping. KOA’s surveys show that, and certainly this year’s near-record turnout at the big RV shows underscores the point. People are looking and day-dreaming, pressing their noses against the display windows of their imaginations as they conjure visions of sweeping vistas and crackling wood fires—they’re just not committing. They’re keeping their powder dry, whether it’s by deferring RV purchases—dealers have been complaining that RV show interest is not translating into sales—or by merely bookmarking campgrounds and RV parks on their computers for a later decision.

The downturn in RV sales, despite industry efforts to characterize it as a return to pre-pandemic norms, is notably larger than expected. Market-leading Thor Industries—whose flagship labels include Jayco and Airstream—earlier this month posted steeper than predicted declines in sales and profits for its second quarter, contending that the sharp slowdown “is proof that our consumer is being impacted by elevated prices, higher interest rates and inflation.” Meanwhile, Winnebago Industries today reported second-quarter results that actually cheered Wall Street because the hole it’s in is not as deep as they’d expected: sales declined from $1.2 billion a year ago to just $866.7 million, or almost $60 million more than the consensus forecast. But helping plug the hole was Winnebago’s 16.1% increase in boat sales, to $112.9 million—apparently a segment that is not taking on water.

A similar pull-back was reported last month by Camping World Holdings, which posted a double-digit decline in same-store new vehicle sales for its fourth quarter—and which cut nearly 1,000 jobs. That mirrors trends in Elkhart, Indiana, where the great majority of U.S. RVs are manufactured and where the unemployment rate in January jumped to just a hair under 5%, more than doubling over the past year.

All this is more suggestive than definitive, as KOA and other industry leaders will be quick to aver. Americans have bought a lot of RVs in the past couple of years, and they’re going to want to use them. An RVing trip is still one of the cheapest ways for a family to go on vacation. Working away from an office is still a thing, and especially among a younger generation of technologically savvy nomads who have been the single biggest demographic of new RV buyers.

All true. But so are the statistics that show millennials are piling on debt to unsustainable levels, while Americans overall increased their credit card debt in 2022 by a record $180.3 billion—and today’s Fed decision, pushing interest rates to a range of 4.75% to 5%, means additional billions in costs in the months ahead. Moreover, millennials and others with college debt can expect an end to the government moratorium on their payments in a few months, further undercutting their ability to afford even relatively cheap vacations—and those, too, are becoming more illusory. RV parks have done themselves no favors by relentlessly increasing their prices the past couple of years.

Recent events have demonstrated just how quickly an apparently stable financial system can get shaken up. Alert RVers are paying attention to the gathering storm clouds, and park owners would be smart to do likewise, regardless of how many rosy forecasts they hear .

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The park-model scam gains steam

Spring arrives next week—and as surely as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano (this year’s festival will be March 25!), land developers armed with exquisitely rendered site plans and pulse-pounding economic projections will be descending on planning commissions and zoning boards coast-to-coast. Environmental disruption will be minimal, they’ll promise. Construction will be to the highest standards. Local shopkeepers will see an influx of new customers, tax coffers will be filled, and the people lucky enough to already be in the neighborhood will fatten and prosper.

And some of that may actually happen. Just don’t count on it, and especially not when the dream-spinners use sleight-of-hand to promote one thing while intending something else.

In southern Colorado, the dreams are being spun by Scottsdale, Az.-based Scott Roberts, owner of 11 RV resorts in five states. More recently he’s jumped on the glamping bandwagon, under the “Village Camp” label, which he describes as “an upscale outdoor resort company that combines oversized RV sites with luxury adventure cabins that can be rented or purchased as private getaway cabins.” Two such Village Camps have already opened, near Lake Tahoe in California and in Flagstaff, Arizona, and two more are in the works in Utah. Standard amenities include a steam room, fitness room, outdoor spa, swimming pool, amphitheater, playground, dog parks, outdoor fire pits, bistro with local microbrews, and a general store.

Now Roberts has his sights set on Colorado’s Animas Valley, where he’s purchased an option on a former 36-acre gravel pit that he would like to transform into a fifth, 306-site Village Camp. As with the other four properties, initial plans call for a mix of RV sites and “adventure cabins,” but the long-term goal is to convert a growing number of the RV pads to rental cabins, and eventually to sell as many of the cabins—currently offered at the Lake Tahoe property for just under $450,000—as possible. Which means, in essence, that Roberts is angling to create a series of high-dollar park-model communities without going through all the usual bureaucratic fuss that comes with building actual subdivisions.

But, of course, all that lies in a problematic future. What’s in the present is a proposal first floated at a La Plata County planning department meeting in early December, at which Roberts told area residents that only 49 cabins would be installed initially, but with plans eventually to have more cabins than RV sites. But these aren’t just “cabins,” he explained. They’re essentially tiny homes that meet the definition of an RV—thereby satisfying the less stringent zoning requirements for campgrounds—but are, he averred, the most expensive models ever produced by the factories from which Village Camps has been buying.

“This modular construction would be similar to having your own luxury hotel room,” helpfully added a planner working with Roberts, as reported in the Durango Herald. “The construction would look like some of our more high-end mountain homes here in Durango; it just happens to be smaller.” And just to drive the point home, Roberts chimed in with the claim that his resorts attract a more affluent class than one would expect to find at an RV park, mentioning several times the prevalence of six-figure Sprinter vans and Teslas on his properties.

That initial December meeting, in which the Herald reported that Roberts was greeted with a mixture of wariness and enthusiasm, was followed by a more divided planning commission hearing Jan. 12. A barrage of public comments, lasting well over an hour, included only a handful of Roberts supporters, with the rest objecting to the lack of more details, to the undefined increase in local highway traffic and to the impact of the park on the rural feel of the neighborhood. The planning board nevertheless voted, 3-2, to approve the next stage of the permitting process, clearing the way for Roberts to submit a preliminary plan that would respond to many of the concerns raised. Such a plan and permit application, Roberts said, will be forthcoming later this spring.

But in the interim, local opposition has gathered steam. The newly formed Animas Valley Action Coalition announced its existence this week and is seeking more support, contending that the planning commission is ignoring the county’s land-use plan. As argued by Dorothy Wehrly, one of the coalition’s founders, in a letter to the Herald editor, Roberts’ application should be for a “tiny home community” or a “manufactured home park,” both of which have more extensive permitting procedures, rather than for an “RV park.” Moreover, she added, Roberts is trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by proposing a 120- or 180-day occupancy limit for his cabins, whereas maximum length-of-stay under the county’s RV park rules is 60 days.

Whether the Animas coalition will generate the kind of local opposition that has greeted other recent glamping proposals is questionable: the environmental issues are not as stark in this instance as they have been elsewhere (how much more damage than a gravel pit can an RV park do?) and local opinion still seems more divided. As always, the devil will be in the details. But if nothing else, the Animas Valley case underscores yet again the Trojan-horse nature of park models, by which long-term housing can be introduced into a community in the guise of recreational vehicles. Need to meet the looser requirements of a commercial campground? No problem: park models are RVs. Want to sell “small luxury homes” for hundreds of thousands of dollars? No problem: park models can be decked out to look precisely so, and without having to conform to pesky HUD construction rules.

Finally, the sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that—as with most manufactured home parks—the “adventure cabins” that Roberts will be selling don’t come with the land on which they’re sitting. In addition, for the privilege of owning a tricked-out RV they’ll be paying $695 a month in rent, disguised as a “community fee.” And if the new owners want to recoup some of their investment by renting out “their” cabins when they’re not using them, that’s okay—provided the rentals are through the Village Camp management company, “to assure consistent guest experience.” For its troubles, the management company will claim half of the rental proceeds.

Financially incomprehensible as all that is, as evident when the glitz is stripped away, there undoubtedly are people with too much money and not enough horse sense who will snap up Roberts’ sugar plums. The question is whether Animas Valley will enable him to open up yet another confectionary shop—and what price it may pay for doing so.

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Glamp-zombie invades Joshua Tree

Lured ever onward by the siren song of rich returns, the bastard zombie known as “glamping” has reeled from one disastrous proposal to another, often without regard for the land it is trampling or the long-established locals it is shouldering aside. If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it’s the outsized contribution such misplaced proposals have made in bringing communities together, even if it is with pitchforks and torches.

The latest case in point was on display earlier this week in San Bernardino County, which while coping with historic snowfalls and flooding also is contending with a Beverly Hills developer’s proposal for a 75-site glampground in the high desert north of Yucca Valley. Flamingo 640, as the project is known, was first proposed two years ago for an area zoned for “rural living,” which permits single family homes and agriculture—as well as campgrounds and mobile home parks. The RoBott Land Company, no slouch, contends that Flamingo 640 is indeed a campground, regardless of what it looks like to the untutored eye, and that’s how its promoters persisted in describing it throughout a three-hour planning commission hearing Thursday.

But as other glamping proposals have demonstrated, the only tenuous connection such facilities have to “camping” is their use of tents for guest quarters—and that doesn’t mean the kinds of tents people associate with REI or Boy Scout hikes. Flamingo 640’s proposal includes 35 domed tents that are 16 feet in diameter, as well as twenty 850-square-foot “chalets” and twenty “camping lofts,” each encompassing 1,230 square-feet—the size of a small house. But that’s only the beginning: also in the plans are a camp store and reception area, eight restrooms, a 3,000 square-foot swimming pool and patio, two 3,600-square-foot “workshops,” a 5,500-square-foot “art barn,” a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and a 5,500-square-foot “agave bar.”

Then there’s a 2,400-square-foot yoga deck, four fire-pits with surrounding hardscape at 700 square-feet apiece, more than 25,00o square-feet of storage space and, yes, a 7,854-square-foot helipad—because isn’t that a standard campground feature? Combine all that with vaguely defined “gardens” covering 212,000 square-feet, 100 parking spaces and assorted paths and walkways, and you end up, as one local resident at the public hearing observed, with the equivalent of eight football fields’ worth of disturbed desert landscape. Or as another local declaimed, “It’s a bunch of luxury hotel rooms, permanent structures and activities all spread out across the desert.”

Nancy Ferguson of Jericho Systems, which has been designing the project for RoBott, responded weakly by insisting that Flamingo 640 is “a campground that also has resort amenities.” Yet even planning chairman Jonathan Weldy commented that “this sort of feels [like it has] a commercial size” quite out of character with the surrounding area.

Things could be worse: the original proposal also included a 25,000-seat amphitheater and 90-acre music festival area, along with 400 parking spaces. That’s been excised, in a failed effort to mollify local opponents, who instead see such ideas as proof of an outsider’s ignorance of the area’s fragility. Just a 20-minute drive from Joshua Tree National Park, the 640-acre site gets less than six inches of rain a year and is home to desert tortoises and burrowing owls, the former a threatened species, the latter “of special concern” and both vulnerable to soil-scraping development. The site also has hundreds of Joshua trees, which currently are candidates for listing as a threatened species but which the development application blithely claims can be transplanted when they’re in the way.

With the Flamingo 640 proposal percolating for almost two years, local opposition has had ample time to marshal an attack. Spearheading the resistance has been the Homestead Valley Community Council, joined by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental and conservation groups, and which among other things has gathered more than 6,000 signatures on an opposition petition. Council president Justin Merino concluded his remarks by handing the commission “some light reading, if any of you are looking for a good read”—a thick binder crammed with 1,069 pages of pleas to deep-six the whole idea.

As might be expected, objections to Flamingo 640 run the gamut, from fears that traffic on “very dangerous” State Route 247 will become even more hazardous, to anger over further disruption of a rural environment, to resentment over outside financial interests profiting from the despoliation of land for which they have no affinity. But underneath it all bubbles a rage at the continued misrepresentation of such projects as “camping,” with all the back-to-nature overtones that implies. “To call this a ‘campground’ is a gross lie,” complained local resident Cordelia Reynolds. “Glamping is not camping,” and neither is a “destination resort,” which is also how Flamingo 640 has been described by its promoters.

in the end, the planning commission hearing dribbled to an anticlimax: despite repeated requests from chairman Weldy for a resolution from his fellow commissioners, none was forthcoming. In the pained silence that followed, he finally said that absent any motion, the Flamingo 640 application was denied without prejudice. That leaves RoBott Land Company just 10 days to appeal the planning commission’s inaction to the county board of supervisors—but because the application wasn’t actually denied, it also has the option of resubmitting the entire package at some future date.

Given the tenacious refusal of glamping zombies to die, Yucca Valley residents might wish to keep their torches and pitchforks close at hand.

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Danish RVers have US-type problem

Corona Camping, home to 80 or so full-timers in defiance of Danish law limiting winter camping; note the smaller size of European RVs compared to their American counterparts .

Dour Hamlet—an English export!— notwithstanding, modern-day Denmark seems like a delightful country. Home of Legos and Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark every March 20 falls within the top handful of 156 countries ranked by Gallup as the happiest in the world, based on income, life expectancy, freedom, social support, trust and generosity. What other country, after all, can claim a four-foot tall bronze mermaid perched on a granite rock as a world-famous tourist attraction?

So it’s disconcerting to learn that the Danes are less than enthralled with American leisure culture, at least that part of it epitomized by RVers, even as they start grappling with a very American kind of conundrum. March 1 marked not only the opening of Denmark’s camping season, but also a renewed and ever more passionate debate over the question of whether campers should be allowed to live in their RVs year-round. Should RVers, that is, be allowed to afflict the tidy Danish landscape with “trailer parks and American conditions” that could “damage the image of an entire industry and thus damage Danish tourism”?

Most prominently provoking this hand-wringing is a facility called Corona Camping, where some 80 people have been living year-round in their RVs—typically described in the Danish press as “trailers” or “caravans”—in defiance of Danish law, which limits winter camping to stays of no more than 15 to 20 days. Køge Municipality has been attempting to evict the long-term residents at least since 2017, but an already cumbersome legal process became even more bogged down when a national television show, “Trailerpark Danmark,” started shining a sympathetic spotlight on Corona’s residents.

As it turns out, there are hundreds of Danes throughout the country living full-time in their caravans—enough to provide Trailerpark Danmark with three seasons of programming thus far—but the Corona coverage prompted an outpouring of public support and generated enough donations for the campground’s owners to hire an attorney. And that, in turn, led to the discovery that Køge Municipality had been citing the wrong law in its eviction efforts and would have to restart the process from square one, allowing Corona’s full-timers to get through yet another winter. Now that the summer season is up and running, they can heave a sigh of relief until November.

Meanwhile, all this fuss about full-timers has gotten the politicians involved, with Parliament giving preliminary approval to a bill that would allow a two-year experiment in extended winter camping. Not willing to rush into anything too bold, however, the bill would limit extended stays to just 5% of sites already approved for winter camping—already a subset of all campsites—and which, as the Danish press has pointed out, would permit only a fraction of Corona’s campers to stay legally.

So the debate continues, and the American experience frequently has been cited as a cautionary note. “We think camping is a form of holiday and leisure and not a form of housing,” said Anne-Vibeke Isaksen, chair of the Dansk Camping Union. “There must be some very clear rules in this area, otherwise we’ll have trailer parks and American conditions and that is not something we want in the DCU.” Among the “challenges” full-timers pose, she offered, are ‘having all their belongings in one place,” creating a “look completely different to those who only arrive with their holiday and leisure gear.” Moreover, full-timers require “a high degree of rules and discipline.”

Corona’s owners, Michael and Susanne Farnø, reportedly have greeted the two-year experiment with mixed feelings, pointing out that the 5% threshold is “a tiny door that opens in a pinch” and won’t have any real significance for their property. The real problem, as Susanne Farnø pointed out, is that full-timing is the only option for some of their campers, either because it’s a lifestyle choice or because they have nowhere else to go. But at least, she added, “the politicians have opened their eyes to the problem and are open to looking at other forms of living.”

Final action on the two-year experiment is expected later this summer, but it may prove to be too little too late. If the Danes really want to learn from the American experience, they need to look at the fleets of RVs parked on U.S. city streets and realize that there are worse alternatives than trailer parks. And when that happens, it’s not just the tourist trade that gets turned off—it’s the local residents and taxpayers.

Lastly, on a dour closing note, it must be observed that the iconic mermaid was defaced within the past week by someone who painted her with a Russian flag. None of our cultural touchstones, it seems, can stay above contemporary economic and political strife. Not RVs, and not bronze statues.

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Let ’em eat cake: gentrifying trailers

Built in 1973, this 800-square-foot mobile home has one bedroom and one bath. Care to guess how much it sold for?

The gentrification of the American economy, given a powerful push by the pandemic, has filtered down to even the lowest classes—and it’s never as painful as when it affects housing. Scarcely a week goes by without several stories of mobile home parks boosting rents by 30%, 40%, even 50% almost overnight, often with the rationale that their owners are merely seeking “market rates.”

In other words, if Trailer Park A raises rates from $650 a month to $800 and Trailer Park B does the same, Trailer Park C—which had been renting sites for $400 a month—now feels justified in doubling the rent. That’s “the market,” you see, at least until the next round of increases. And it “works” because conventional sticks-and-bricks homes have become so much more outrageously expensive, whether to buy or rent—assuming you can find something available in the first place—that the residents of such immiserated compounds often have no options other than homelessness.

Given the above, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that house trailers—um, “manufactured homes”—are acquiring an upscale vibe. Or if not the vibe, then definitely the price tag. Consider the house trailer pictured above, featured today in a San Francisco Chronicle story that described it as a “bungalow in Novato’s coveted Marin Valley Mobile Country Club.” It was snatched up after being on the market for just one day—for $346,750.

True, the “bungalow” had been extensively remodeled. And yes, it is in an expensive neighborhood—but as with most mobile home parks, the residents don’t own the land under their units, so that $433-a-square-foot price tag doesn’t include any real estate. The saving grace here is that the property is owned by the city of Novato, which apparently doesn’t feel a need to charge market rates; rent at the Marin Valley Mobile Country Club ranges between $600 and $700 a month. So: a high cost of entry but relatively modest costs thereafter, which is precisely the opposite of most mobile home owners’ experiences.

Ironic, huh?

So can you imagine how much the same house trailer might fetch if the land it sits on was part of the package, the way most American homes are sold? Actually, you don’t have to imagine that at all, thanks to reporting a couple of weeks ago in the New York Post: the answer is, almost exactly ten times more. An off-market purchase of, yes, an 800-square-foot house trailer in Montauk Shores—Long Island’s Marin County equivalent—went for a record $3.75 million. To be sure, the two-bedroom, two-bath mobile home is a custom-built job with high-end finishes, but as the Post points out, its per-square-foot price is putting it in the same class as New York City’s luxury market. As in “Tribeca penthouse.”

Moreover, the real state agent repping the unnamed buyer was quick to claim that while the Montauk Shores complex is often referred to as “the trailer park,” the trailers are “not technically mobile homes.” Precisely why was not made clear, as the realtor explained only that the trailers are all “on slabs and do not have foundations,” which is true of any mobile home park. But he did add that the owners of the trailers do own those slabs as well, so there you have it.

Public reaction has been mixed, albeit leavened with a fair amount of scorn. Some social media comments claimed that the location alone makes the price worthwhile, but others averred that real estate “is the oldest Ponzi of them all.” Or as one noted: “Only in America. A buyer is plunking down $3.75m for a luxury mobile home in a trailer park in the Hamptons. Gives a whole new meaning to trailer trash.”

Meanwhile, the folks traditionally dismissed as “trailer trash” are waging increasingly bitter battles to maintain their homes, one step removed from being out on the street. They’re everywhere, in every state and in just about every city of any size, and their world is unimaginably distant from the excesses described above. You have to wonder how long a society of such extremes can retain its cohesiveness before fragmenting into warring factions—oh, that’s right. Never mind. . . .

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An early spring comes before the fall

Here in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, the daffodils and forsythia are in full yellow splash. An hour’s drive south, Roanoke’s roads are lined with brilliant white canopies of flowering trees. Ninety minutes northeast, in Washington, D.C., the cherry trees have started to pop, nearly a month early.

We’ll almost certainly pay for this bucolic weather later in the month, when the inevitable cold snap grasps all those premature blossoms in its mortal grip—or not, in which case we’ll pay weeks later with a bumper crop of bothersome insects. We’ve had only one significant freeze all winter, back in December, which means that barring a reprise we’ll be looking at a summer of bigger and more plentiful mosquitoes, flies, stink bugs and other pests. But there’s at least some truth in that warning about March—in like a lamb, out like a lion and vice versa—and it’s not unusual for us to have blizzards and significant snowfall well into April. One can hope.

California, on the other hand, has flipped the script with record amounts of cold, snow and rain. Los Angeles, which gets an annual rainfall of 12 inches, has been a flood zone. Yosemite National Park is closed indefinitely, the valley floor buried under nearly four feet of snow amid drifts of 15 feet or more, and more expected in the days ahead. Tahoe’s ski resorts are giddy over unprecedented amount of powder, so much more preferred than the usual heavy “Sierra cement”—but all that snow makes getting to the lodges an ordeal, and in an apparent paradox, the fluffier powder increases avalanche risks. Moreover, if a slight thawing of oncoming fronts brings more rain than snow, look for significant flooding throughout the state.

The weather, in other words, has become enormously intrusive from one end of the country to the other. It’s no longer a background phenomenon, punctuated by the occasional hysteria of a tornado: it’s very much in the foreground almost all the time, throwing one curve ball after another. It shouldn’t be a surprise—we’ve been getting warned about this for at least a couple of decades—but still there’s astonishment and disbelief. And, it should be noted, a stubborn refusal to make significant changes in response.

Consider, for example, the report out today from the International Energy Agency, which found that the world emitted more carbon dioxide last year than in any year on record dating back to 1900. Despite all the global conferences and solemn pledges to reduce such emissions, a rebound in post-pandemic air travel, as well as more cities relying on coal-fired power plants, resulted in an overall 0.9% increase in 2022. More carbon dioxide in the air means a stronger greenhouse effect, which means more heat trapped in the atmosphere, which means more extreme weather, which . . . .

And yet. A Republican-led charge this week seeks to ban retirement funds from taking environmental factors into consideration when making investment choices. Claiming Wall Street has succumbed to “woke capitalism,” the House on Tuesday voted along party lines to repeal a Department of Labor rule permitting such consideration; the closely-divided Senate is lining up for a similar vote, with across-the-aisle support from coal-mining Senator and faux Democrat Joe Manchin. The ostensible purpose of such an attack, as summarized by potential presidential candidate Mike Pence, is to safeguard “hard-working Americans’ retirement accounts.” What’s really at stake is the fear that investment funds will disinvest in fossil fuel companies.

Given the above, it’s ironic that this week also marked the release by First Street Foundation of the latest in a series of risk factors it has analyzed for real estate properties across the United States. A non-profit research group working to make public access to climate risk easy to understand, First Street previously reported on flood, fire and extreme heat trends caused by global warming; this week’ s release is titled “The 7th National Risk Assessment: Worsening Winds.” The bottom line? Tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are becoming more intense and are moving farther north, to such an extent that “over 13.4 million properties will be exposed to tropical cyclones in 30 years that are not currently.”

Poetically, hardest-hit will be the uber-conservative southern states that are most vociferous in denouncing any attempts to curb environmental despoliation, a broad swath from Texas across the Gulf states and along the eastern seaboard to North Carolina and points north, but also as far inland as western Tennessee. But the most vulnerable will continue to be the increasingly feudal state of Florida, which already is burdened with more than 80% of the nation’s hurricane risk, at $13.4 billion in annualized losses—growing to $14.3 billion a year by 2052.

All that seems very far away from the drowsy, premature spring we’re enjoying here in the Shenandoah, however short-lived it may prove. Eventually, though, the piper will collect his due. He always does. Reality bites.

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Growing identity crisis for RV parks

Despite the entrance sign at right, the R.V. Park of San Rafael is home to an eclectic mix of travel trailers, mobile homes and a park model, all visible from the entrance.

RVtravel has an interesting story today, by Randall Brink, which misses the forest for the trees but which nonetheless sounds yet another warning about a dystopian outlook for RV full-timers.

The piece, headlined “RV park tenants evicted after court ruling,” relates how residents of the R.V. Park of San Rafael, California, will lose their homes after the park’s owners ran afoul of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance—an ordinance expressly designed for mobilehome parks. In a nutshell, the property owner’s management firm, Harmony Communities, tried to raise rents by more than the ordinance permits, and on being sued by the city, argued that an RV park should not be subject to a mobilehome ordinance. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing out that the ordinance has been on the books since 1991—15 years prior to the current owner buying the property—and that the matter had already been adjudicated in state court.

Harmony’s response? Issue eviction notices earlier this month to 40 of the RV park’s 45 residents, giving them until Oct. 31 to vacate the premises, presumably to prepare the land for sale. “The city wants a private property owner to singlehandedly subsidize affordable housing in San Rafael but the park has no cash and is losing money every month,” Harmony explained in a press release. “Since the city has refused to honor its own ordinance, the only choice is to shut down the park. We anticipate all residents moving out by October and look forward to redeveloping the property towards a higher and better use.”

Note that even after losing its court case, Harmony is still insisting that the city’s ordinance should not be applicable to an RV park—but is that an accurate description of the R.V. Park of San Rafael? As the photo above illustrates, the one shared aspect of the various dwellings on this property is that they all have wheels. Calling this conglomeration an RV park is no more accurate than calling it a mobile home park or trailer court—indeed, it could as easily, and accurately, be called the Mobilehome Park of San Rafael. Moreover, that blurring of distinctions is not helped in the least by California’s statutes, which define a mobilehome park as a property “that has at least two mobilehomes, manufactured homes, recreational vehicles, and/or lots that are held out for rent or lease.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does it matter? For one thing, such state laws and court rulings continue to mock efforts by the RV industry to draw a bright line between its products, which it contends are not intended for full-time residency, and actual dwellings that must be built to national housing standards. Successfully making that distinction helps the industry avoid such pesky regulations as requiring their electricians to be licensed, to cite a particularly egregious example, and it enables enormous cost-savings on construction materials and quality. If national standards for manufactured housing—the more contemporary label for mobile homes—were applied uniformly to mobilehome parks, RVs would never be admitted.

But that’s the forest that gets obscured by individual trees like the R.V. Park of San Rafael, where press coverage tends to focus on the need for affordable housing and not so much on what standards that housing should meet. What’s obscured is that RVs, park models, tiny homes and house trailers increasingly have become an undifferentiated mass of last-resort shelter, jostling each other for a place to chock their wheels in a mad campground game of musical sites—single-wides moving into RV parks, travel trailers finding room in trailer courts, park models and tiny homes springing into any chinks that can be found.

All these disparate forms of housing are not created equal, so why do we pretend that they are—except, of course, when it suits an outfit like Harmony Communities (really? Harmony?) to draw a belated, self-serving distinction? Are standards for manufactured homes too stringent, and therefore should be relaxed, if only to make house trailers more affordable? Or are those standards the bare minimum for ensuring safe and durable shelter for people with wheeled homes, even if those homes are called park models, fifth-wheels or travel trailers—in which case, what will it take to extend those standards?

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Camping steak: a lot of sizzle, but . . .

The camping PR machine is kicking into high gear, beating the drums for another blockbuster year and working hard to energize the camping public. “Planning Early is a Hot Trend,” according to the Editor’s Notes in the March issue of Woodall’s Campground Magazine. “2023 Camping Starts Strong,” announces the February monthly report from Kampgrounds of America, its findings summarized by one online industry publication as “an exciting outlook for the outdoor hospitality industry.”

Well, not quite. While the Woodall’s piece asserts that early booking is “key for campers who want to stay at specific parks,” that may not be as true of the overall industry. And Woodall’s underlying analysis is based largely on The Dyrt 2023 Camping Report, which may be an interesting read but is almost entirely retrospective, more focused on telling readers what happened in 2022 than what to expect in 2023. Meanwhile, a closer look at the KOA report is revealing: while the February 2023 survey reports that 26% of campers have already booked all or some of their trips for the season, that’s less than half of the 54% who had done so a year earlier, according to that year’s February report.

Demand, in other words, may be quite a bit softer than industry boosters would have us believe. This has been signaled to some extent by a widely reported decline in RV production last year, with 493,268 units rolling off the assembly line—a 21.5% haircut from the all-time record of 600,240 RVs shipped in 2021; moreover, industry forecasts call for only 419,000 shipments in 2023. Optimists have rallied around the observation that even with last year’s steep decline, RV production in 2022 was the third highest in industry history; they’re less likely to note that the second highest level was set back in 2017, and that production declined each of the two subsequent years—until the pandemic turned everything around.

A second set of numbers RV manufacturers are less likely to quote have to do with retail sales. Indeed, the past decade has seen twice as many years in which more RVs were manufactured than were sold, an overall trend that was snapped in 2019 and 2020 before resuming in 2021. Last year there were 45,550 more RVs shipped than were sold, adding to a surplus of 29,469 in 2021, explaining why many RVers report seeing more RVs in dealers’ lots than in some campgrounds.

Replenishing inventory could be seen as a positive sign in an otherwise expanding market, but there’s little data to suggest that’s the case and a growing body of evidence to think otherwise. Americans’ financial reserves are evaporating as pandemic relief programs run out, ongoing inflation is eroding buying power and housing costs remain stubbornly at record highs. Perhaps most telling: credit card debt is at an all-time high, just shy of $1 trillion, and delinquencies among borrowers are accelerating, thanks to record-setting credit card interest rates nearing 20%.

Other storm clouds include an end to the pause on college student loan payments, scheduled for the end of June—just in time to derail the summer vacation plans of Gen Z and Millennial campers that the RV industry has hailed as a much-awaited shot in the arm. Gas prices, meanwhile, remain a wild card: $1 a gallon higher than a year ago but still at a reasonable level, yet with some indications that they might soon be headed for sharp increases.

Amid all that uncertainty, a campground industry that too readily believes its own rah-rah boosterism could be making some major missteps. One indicator of that is provided in the same Dyrt camping report that Woodall’s cited so uncritically, in a pair of statistics under the heading, “property managers respond to demand.” In 2022, 48.6% took advantage by raising their rates—and 46.4% said they plan to do so this year. Whether campers will swallow such increases at a time when consumers are spending more on food and essentials and less on hard goods remains to be seen, but grumblings about higher prices have already been forthcoming.

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What hunters and skiers can teach us

To better understand what’s happening within a relatively small industry, such as commercial campgrounds and RV parks, it can be helpful to look at “adjacent” businesses and associations. In that regard, recent complaints by hunters and skiers suggest the difficulties—driven by public policy changes and climate change— that await campers trying to enjoy an increasingly diminished great outdoors. Meanwhile, a 2022 survey of the “attractions industry” has found that travelers and tourists of all sorts are becoming measurably less satisfied because of understaffing and overpricing, a pair of developments that will resonate for growing numbers of campground customers.

In Colorado, three hunting groups resigned last week from the Colorado Outdoor Partnership, asserting that their concerns about wildlife management and habitat “have been increasingly underrepresented, not responded to and often ignored.” The Colorado Outfitters Association, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management were among more than 30 organizations that pulled together in 2016 to work on reconciling outdoor recreation and conservation in a sustainable way, but their resignation speaks to a growing imbalance in the group’s discussions.

“There’s no room for any conversations around wildlife and habitat management,” Dan Gates, a founding member of the partnership, told Jason Blevins, who writes for The Outsider newsletter. “Nothing can be done for wildlife and habitat because there are all these other distractions on this landscape.” Luke Wiedel, with the Elk Foundation, added that his group’s involvement was limited to “check[ing] off a bunch of boxes . . . so they can say we had wildlife groups approve our statewide recreational plan.”

“If we are really going to have meaningful and impactful conversations and action revolving around recreation and conservation, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves some serious philosophical questions about wildlife and habitat and capacity and impacts,” Wiedel explained. “We need to all come to the realization that we all have an impact—hunters and all recreational users—and then we need to decide what we are going to to do about that impact.”

Meanwhile, even as Colorado is celebrating one of the best ski seasons it’s ever had, this year’s abundant snowfall is an outlier after a decade “that has seen more sad seasons than epic ones,” according to Ski magazine. Indeed, the 2015-’16 season was dubbed the “non-winter” on the East Coast, and the season before that was considered the worst in Utah’s history, even as some resorts in Canada didn’t open at all. But while Colorado skiers this year are plowing through so much powder that some especially high-spirited ones are wearing snorkels, it’s been a very different story elsewhere, and especially in the Alps.

Warm weather wiped out nearly a month of racing at the start of this year’s season, and ski lodge operators who have been in business for decades are publicly fretting that their livelihoods are on the line. With preseason training on melting glaciers heading toward extinction—despite such desperate measures as resorts covering glaciers with fleece blankets during the summer—and invasive cacti colonizing some Swiss mountainsides, nearly 200 world-class athletes addressed a letter earlier this month to the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) demanding action over climate change.

“We are already experiencing the effects of climate change in our everyday lives and our profession,” the athletes wrote. “The public opinion about skiing is shifting towards unjustifiability. . . . We need progressive organizational action. We are aware of the current sustainability efforts of FIS and rate them as insufficient.” FIS has not yet responded.

As if it weren’t bad enough that outdoor recreation is under stress from poor planning, overuse and more extreme weather, a further contributing factor to user unhappiness is a decline in overall service from recreation providers. As reported by PGAV Destinations, which plans and designs various “destinations” (think theme parks, zoos, museums, aquariums, etc.), overall consumer satisfaction scores slipped in 2022 relative to historical averages in categories including staff friendliness, feeling welcome and value received for the money spent. Multiple studies, it added, “show customer expectations are soaring, but the customer service they receive is declining.”

What’s happening? The PGAV report cites a 2022 Hubspot survey that found customer service leaders don’t have the resources to deliver the customer service people expect—expectations, I’ll add, that get pumped up by higher prices. The missing “resource” is labor, which is in short supply throughout the hospitality and destination industries, and especially so at campgrounds and RV parks. “Staffing problems can cause lower quality, higher pressure on staff, closures of food and retail locations, longer lines and many other issues,” the report helpfully observed. “All of that adds up to upset customers.”

Put it all together and it’s clear the campground industry faces enormous, even existential challenges, but for the most part remains unable even to name the threats—never mind engage in the kind of fact-finding, discussion and debate that could lead to an active response. You know things are bad when the only way you can assess a situation is by analogy or proxy, inferring rather than directly observing. But that remove won’t make the reckoning any less painful.

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