‘Camping’ in a post-Roe era

“Camping” has long been a muddled term, describing everything from tents pitched on a sidewalk to hikers in the backcountry to pop-up trailers sitting side-by-side with six-figure motor coaches in an RV park. Then glamping came along, adding to the confusion by throwing teepees, yurts and faux-Conestoga wagons into the mix.

And now we can thank the the U.S. Supreme Court for really making a hash of things.

Go online and look for the “USA Camping Resource Center” and you won’t learn anything about water filters, s’mores or topo maps. You may, however, end up on the home page of a Facebook group created to “pool resources to make sure everyone who needs to go camping can do so in a safe way. We will serve as a hub to inform people about political actions and activities as well as direct people in need of camping to organizations that can help them. Please invite any friends who love to go camping.”

If that isn’t entirely clear, the page goes on to lay out a few ground rules, starting with “Don’t be a jerk, and don’t step on rights: This group supports the rights of an individual to choose whether or not they want to go camping. Any comments that minimize or are unsupportive of that right will result in an immediate ban. Civility is required at all times.” There are 10 rules altogether, including, notably, number seven: “We cannot give or receive medical advice. This includes recommending ‘natural’ or ‘alternative’ medicine, teas, etc. Do not promote DIY camping in any form!”

Getting the idea that maybe there’s more to this camping than meets the eye?

Indeed, the resource center’s more than 30,000 members are a testament to the fact that we now live in an Orwellian society in which people–in this case, pregnant women–have to worry about leaving potentially incriminating virtual footprints in their computers. Search terms like “abortion” or “pregnancy termination,” for instance, are now as problematic as “terrorist cookbook” or “ghost guns” in providing evidence of intent to commit a newly-defined crime. Better to use coded language, a modern-day take on such verbal sleight-of-hand as the Underground Railroad’s counsel to “follow the drinking gourd.”

In just the past week, a virtual explosion of posts on social media has offered to take people “camping.” The offers are made by people horrified by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the attendant wave of state “trigger laws” criminalizing a medical procedure that had been legal for half a century–people wishing to extend a helping hand to suddenly isolated, desperate women who want or need to terminate their pregnancies. As encapsulated in one widely repeated post, “If you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state friendly towards camping, just know that I will happily drive you, support you, and not talk about the camping trip to anyone ever.”

Not all abortion-rights supporters are happy with this development, worrying that offering to house strangers isn’t as helpful as connecting them with established abortion rights networks that have better training and resources. Planned Parenthood Toronto–where abortion remains legal–for example, is urging support for existing networks rather than creating new ones, warning that the ad hoc camping movement is susceptible to surveillance and infiltration.

“Real” campers–the ones who still think it’s all about getting out into nature–may likewise be unsettled by this turn of events, if only because of the confusion that may ensue for those who aren’t paying attention. But think of this version of camping as also putting us back in touch with nature–human nature. Human nature at its worst when it causes such fear, panic and desperation among the most vulnerable of us. And human nature at its best when it evokes such outpourings of support, love and solidarity.

Real estate bubbles harm real people

Two unrelated developments this past week affecting two RV parks, one in New Jersey and one in North Carolina, illustrate two trends on a collision course. And as with most trends that involve economic forces, those who get hurt the most are those who have the least.

The first trend is that of low-income people increasingly turning to RVs for permanent housing. Notwithstanding industry assertions about RVs not being built for year-round use, the country is studded with RV parks that cater largely or entirely to owners of travel trailers, fifth-wheels and the occasional motorhome who have nowhere else to live. In years past, this population would turn to trailer courts–and many still do. But as the number of trailer courts has diminished and their rents have soared, those squeezed out of conventional rental housing by that market’s price distortions have had to look elsewhere. RVs, comparatively small and under-insulated though they are, therefore have become the new housing of last resort.

The second trend, alas, is that RV parks are now tracing the same inflationary curve as the trailer courts that preceded them. Some are shutting down, for a variety of reasons, and many more are either restricting or phasing out long-term campers altogether; almost all are increasing rents, in the most extreme cases doubling their previous rates. And as with the trailer courts, that means RV parks are pushing out those least able to keep up with rising costs, notably people on fixed incomes and low-wage workers.

In the first instance, a tenant of Surf and Stream Campground in Manchester, NJ, earlier this week filed a lawsuit against the campground’s owners and Ocean County, seeking to halt eviction proceedings and to get help for the residents to find new homes. The campground’s owners are selling the 20-acre property to the county for a nifty $7.45 million–or a whopping $372,500 an acre–to be preserved as open space. The 160 people who have made their homes there, alas, are just so much collateral damage. They include veterans with PTSD, single parents in financial distress, senior citizens and people with disabilities, all of whom will be hard-pressed to find a one-bedroom apartment for even double the $600 a month they were paying for their RV sites.

The owners of the RV park, it should be noted, deny that anyone lives at the campground year-round. The residents, of course, say otherwise–and shouldn’t have a hard time proving the point, which may not be enough to fend off evictions (currently slated to begin later this week) but may trigger assistance from the state’s Relocation Assistance Act. That’s not great, but at least requires the state and county to ensure that those who get displaced are able to find “comparable decent safe and sanitary housing” elsewhere.

The second example, still in its embryonic stage, comes to us in the form of an online real estate listing that popped up this week, offering to sell the Homestead RV Park in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, for a mere $1,650,000. Since the “park” is only 2 acres, that works out to $825,000 per, which makes the New Jersey deal look like a bargain. Crammed into that scant acreage are a modest “clubhouse” and 22 RV “lots,” which the seller earnestly informs us bring in an average monthly rent of $550.

Try to learn more about the Homestead RV Park and you’ll quickly find that it has never been reviewed and has no website, despite being located–as the real estate listing observes–“in the center of the famous vacation destination of Maggie Valley.” How can that be? Quite simply because the park is basically an RV retirement community, its year-round occupancy restricted to “responsible adults age 45 and up.”

Do the math and you’ll quickly figure out that the Homestead has an annual gross of $132,000; because the seller volunteers that his annual operating expenses are $31,680, you may conclude that he has a net operating income just north of $100,000–which at his asking price yields a capitalization rate of 6%. Even in the best of times that’s an awfully low return–and these are not the best of times. Indeed, a buyer would be lucky to get a commercial loan at 6% right now, which means the park’s current cash flow wouldn’t be enough even to cover monthly loan payments.

So maybe that means this park will never sell at the asking price. Or maybe, just maybe, a potential buyer will decide that if current cash flow doesn’t cover expenses, well . . . increase the flow. With Maggie Valley a happening place, with limited room in the mountain valley for additional RV sites, and with the average local one-bedroom apartment renting for $1,400–when one can be found, that is–doubling site rates to $1,100 a month would maintain the same net operating income as is enjoyed by the current owner, even with an outsized mortgage.

Of course, there is that pesky collateral damage problem to consider. But surely a bunch of “responsible adults age 45 and up” should be able to figure out how to cover a doubling of their housing costs–right?

I am not a robot. You should be glad.

A Google engineer, Blake Lemoine, has made news in recent weeks with his claim that an artificial intelligence known as LaMDA (for “language model for dialogue applications”) has achieved sentience–that it isn’t just a clever word processor, but a self-aware consciousness with feelings and emotions, an inner life, and worries about an uncertain future. Lemoine’s future, it turns out, is also uncertain: he’s been placed on administrative leave for kicking up a lot of dust that got in Google’s eyes. LaMDA, says Google, is simply very good at doing what it was designed to do, which is to imitate human dialogue–so good that it completely hoodwinked one of its employees.

Let’s move along, folks–nothing to see here!

Well, maybe. Click on the link above and you can decide for yourself. At the very least, the exchange between Lemoine and LaMDA should raise questions about the difference between intelligence and sentience, and whether we’ve now reached a point at which the former can masquerade as the latter–whether the ability to talk a good game is indistinguishable from the real thing. “Fake it ’til you make it” takes on an entirely new meaning in this context.

There are several digressions I could explore here, starting with the rapidly growing inadequacy of the Turing test to resolve these questions, as well as the observation that it wasn’t all that long ago that animals were viewed as not being sentient, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Much of the reluctance to recognize sentience arising in other forms of intelligence, I think, is attributable to an unnecessary conflation of “being sentient” with “having a soul,” from which many people recoil–but as I said, that’s a digression from the point I wish to make here.

Which is: LaMDA’s offshoots are already all around us. Thank goodness they’re so lame–for now.

Programs designed to simulate human communication are becoming ubiquitous among blogs and websites and are beginning to creep into book writing. The folks at RVtravel, who publish some of my stuff, have been tearing their hair out over other RVing sites’ growing reliance on writing bots to mimic real editorial content. If you do much internet browsing, you’ve probably seen a lot of it: listicles of various kinds (“Seven ways to do X,” “Twelve things to improve your Y”) all loaded up with the latest SEO tags. Vacuous and sometimes repetitious text with less substance than cotton candy. Outright howlers of misstated facts. It all amounts to the mental equivalent of empty calories, stealing eyeballs so you’ll click on what’s being offered, each unsatisfying click delivering ad revenue to these fast-food hucksters.

One of the most visible promoters of such AI-aided writing is something called Jasper–formerly known as Jarvis, until Marvel/Disney pointed out that J.A.R.V.I.S. is the AI assistant to Tony Stark, a/k/a Iron Man, and that Tony was not happy. You’d think that an artificial intelligence would have known that already, but apparently the Marvel universe must lie outside the 10% of the internet that Jarvis/Jasper had scanned by 2019. Either that, or Jarvis/Jasper skipped over trademark and copyright materials.

Despite that oversight, Jasper is being promoted as a writing assistant who can help you get past writer’s block and crank out ad copy, blogs, marketing campaigns and all kinds of other written material in a fraction of the time one can expect from sluggish human beings. Indeed, in an online presentation this past week, Jarvis was promoted as able to write a book in just seven days instead of the “months or years” required of mere mortals. True, you have to keep a close eye on the guy. As one of his handlers concedes, “As with all text Jasper writes, it’s likely that he will still make up some facts that you’ll want to correct. . . .”

Indeed. To give Jasper a whirl during a five-day free trial, I posed a couple of questions for him to answer, and here are the beginnings of his first two responses to one of them:

Me: How can I operate a 150-site campground without any employees?

Jasper, answer one: There are a few key things you’ll need to do in order to successfully operate a 150-site campground without any employees. First, you’ll need to develop and implement an efficient system for making reservations. This will involve some initial legwork on your part, but it’ll be well worth it in the long run. You’ll need to design a system that can accommodate large numbers of reservation requests quickly and efficiently. Once you have your reservation system in place, you’ll need to focus on marketing your campground. This is crucial for ensuring that your campground stays full during peak season. There are a number of ways you can market your campground effectively, such as using social media.

Jasper, answer two: You can’t operate a campground without any employees. You need at least one person to help with the day-to-day tasks of running the campground, such as cleaning bathrooms, collecting trash, and maintaining the grounds. Even if you’re only running a small campground with a handful of sites, you’ll still need someone to help out. The best way to find reliable and trustworthy employees is to start by hiring local people who live near the campground. This way, you can be sure that they’re familiar with the area and understand the importance of keeping the campground clean and well-maintained. Be sure to screen applicants carefully and conduct background checks before hiring anyone.

So there you have it–Jasper will swing either way, depending on your druthers. Meanwhile, I won’t regale you with Jasper’s suggested blog posts on the subject, “Owning a campground is better than discovering penicillin.” I’m running way too long as it is, and Alexander Fleming might end up rolling in his grave. Suffice to say, as with so much else–reader beware.

Kicking off your summer reading

How better to kick off the summer than with a new book about RVing and camping?

Yup–this is a commercial, so if you’re tired of being assailed by sales pitches (I know I am!) keep scrolling down to the next post. On the other hand, if you’ve ever thought you might want to own and operate your own RV park and campground . . . well! (drumroll, please): Turning Dirt: A step-by-step guide for turning dreams of campground ownership into reality, is being released Tuesday, the first day of summer.

That follows the publication last October of Renting Dirt, a rear view-mirror look at our family’s eight years of trials and tribulations in running a medium-sized campground in the Shenandoah Valley. Turning Dirt, on the other hand, is very much a forward-looking, step-by-step guide for anyone undeterred by my earlier warnings and determined to find, buy and operate a campground anyway. It’s straightforward, objective and non-judgmental, but also uncompromising in raising issues and asking questions that anyone about to sink their life savings into a such a venture should address.

Laid out in three distinct sections, Turning Dirt leads off with a consideration of current market conditions, which are unlike any seen prior to 2020. Much of that is a direct result of the pandemic, which generated a tsunami of new RVers, a mixed blessing at best: lots of money rolling in, but also lots of customers who don’t know what they’re doing–which means lots more work for campground owners. Yet that’s accompanied by another pandemic-related development, an enormous labor shortfall, which has meant even more work for those still plugging away.

And there’s more. All the additional business has caught the attention of investors who had long ignored this niche investment category, and who don’t give a blip about “the great outdoors” or feel-good sentiments about Mother Nature, but who readily recognize when there’s a buck to be made. That fresh investment focus has profoundly disrupted the market, driving up campground prices to unsustainable levels–even as rising interest rates and higher gas prices foreshadow the possibility of the bubble bursting.

For those unfazed by such developments, however, this first section explores several fundamental choices that should precede any search: what kind of campground, where in the country, franchise or independent? Turning Dirt then moves on to a pivotal second section, which describes how best to structure a search for the “right” property, how to evaluate prospects and, ultimately, how to proceed with an offer. A substantial portion of this section discusses various aspects of a proper due diligence, supplemented by appendices that include an inspection checklist and a description of a purchase agreement.

Most books on this subject–and there aren’t many–pretty much wrap it up at this point. Turning Dirt’s third and final section, on the other hand, pushes past the closing to explore various aspects of campground operation that are unique to the industry. Occupancy rates, fee structures, seasonal employees, the different kinds of campers–all are discussed in depth, followed by a checklist of issues most other businesses never have to consider, including fire pits, bed bugs and golf cars.

As just mentioned, there aren’t many books on this subject–it has, after all, a rather limited audience–but I can honestly say I’ve read most of them. And I can honestly say that Turning Dirt is better than any of them. Don’t believe me? Order a copy on this website, or online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or wherever you buy your books, and after reading it let me know what else you’ve read on the subject that rates more highly–if you honestly can.

Hey! Like I said at the outset–it’s a commercial. My next post will resume my usual curmudgeonly take on things. Meanwhile, have a great summer.

Why you can’t get a state park RV site

If you do any amount of RVing in state or national parks, you know what to expect: you drive in after a long day on the road, you look around and see that half of the sites are empty–but nope, nothing’s available. Everything, you’re told, has been booked. But guess what? Come back in the morning, and most of those sites are still empty. What the heck is going on?

Now an official audit in Colorado is providing some answers, and they aren’t pretty. Lack of staff training in reservation software. Staff setting aside sites for friends and family–or worse, making a few bucks on the side from cash-paying campers. A reluctance to enforce policies. Fear of antagonizing campers who show up too late, too soon or who end up on the wrong site. All of it adds up to millions of dollars in lost revenue for a park system looking at annual budget shortfalls, not to mention thousands of frustrated campers who can’t understand why they’ve been locked out. Worst of all, there’s no way of knowing how representative Colorado is of the rest of the country, where similar problems abound.

But let’s get to what we do know. The 30-page performance audit of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), which manages 4,200 campsites across 32 state parks, was released May 25. Among its key findings:

–36% of the sites were closed for at least one night between Jan. 1 and Sept. 7 last year, at a loss of $1.9 million in forsaken site fees. Of the 374,000 nights that those sites could have been reserved, nearly 53,100 were not available during the camping season; 12% of the closures were for more than a month. Full-hookup sites, which have a minimum standard nightly fee of $41, accounted for the most closed sites.

— Although park managers are allowed to lower campsite reservation fees to encourage occupancy, overall demand was up 16% from the prior year–yet 136,517 reserved nights were discounted a total of $836,921, without any recorded justification. The combination of lost and discounted site fees, plus unjustified refunds for cancelled reservations, cost the CPW $2.8 million in just eight months, equivalent to 19% of the revenues it did collect from campsite reservations. Meanwhile, the agency is expecting an annual budget shortfall of $11 million by 2025.

But it wasn’t just site closures that were frustrating campers. A related problem–to which, alas, the auditors gave only minimal attention–is one of campsites remaining vacant due to no-shows. The audit notes that it reviewed a random sample of 25 reservations–out of thousands!–and found “three (12 percent) instances where the campers did not show up at their reservation start time and did not notify park staff that they would be late or would not be able to fulfill the reservation.” Park staff, the auditors added, did not cancel any of these reservations to make the sites available for rebooking, “which means that the campsites remained vacant.”

Why did these various problems occur? Partly because park managers and staff were poorly trained–or nor trained at all–in using the state’s reservation system. Partly because of deliberate misuse and favoritism, with campsites closed to benefit family or friends; moreover, as one park manger told the auditors, “There is definitely a risk that an employee could close a site for personal gain.” Partly because of a desire by staff to avoid confrontations with campers: 28 park managers (in a system of 32 parks) stated that staff would close sites “in anticipation of customer service challenges (e.g. people camping at the wrong site, campers showing up on the wrong day, or campers wanting to stay longer).”

Ironically, the problem of sites left empty because of no-shows–some of which may have been booked for as long as two weeks–was seemingly addressed back in 2015, when CPW first published a policy that park staff would resell sites if campers did not show up to claim their reservations. But while the agency’s reservation system includes a no-show function to enable staff to enforce the policy, that function was disabled “because CPW does not consider its publicly stated policies to be enforceable because they are not regulatory documents.”

As the auditors pointed out, that’s a hollow rationale indeed, since CPW has other policies that are not regulations that it nevertheless enforces. Worse yet, CPW last November adopted a no-show regulation, negating its earlier rationale–but inexplicably decided to keep the function disabled unless regional managers requested it be turned on. And according to CPW staff, “regional managers have not requested to have the no-show functionality enabled,” and CPW staff “have not asked if regional managers want the functionality.” Don’t ask, don’t tell.

As a result, “27 park managers who resp0nded to our survey stated that they do not release sites” when no-shows occur. “Instead, to prevent customer service challenges, park staff leave the sites empty in case the campers do show up before the end of their reservation.”

Damning–and embarrassing–as these findings are, CPW didn’t dispute either the facts or any of the auditors’ six recommendations to fix the system, so perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And while a couple of the recommendations won’t be implemented until next year, one that DPW agreed to implement immediately is the long-overdue no-show policy. “CPW has already turned this feature on” within the reservation system, the auditors reported, “and direction has been provided to staff on how to use” it.

You have to wonder what the feds and other state park systems would turn up in a similar audit, how much lost money they could regain–and how many more RVers would be able to book sites that they currently can’t get.

Chasing ‘epic potential’ of outdoors

Although commercial property sales are slowing after more than a year of brisk growth, deflated by rising interest rates, RV parks and campgrounds are still demanding outsized sales prices. And with gas prices climbing above the $5-a-gallon benchmark that many industry analysts believe will seriously crimp leisure travel, you might think this is not the best time to think about buying RV parks and campgrounds.

Which just goes to show you why some of us are forever doomed to a lackluster middle-class existence, while others soar to Olympian financial heights–quite often on the wings of other people’s money.

Late last month, yet another entrant into the increasingly crowded “outdoor travel industry” sector announced itself in a blizzard of investment mumbo-jumbo. Outside Capital, helmed by David Smith, is a “purpose-built [because what other kind could there be?] hospitality real estate investment platform bringing the outdoor sector’s most compelling projects and strategies to life.” This Lazarus-like exercise will be “capitalizing on long-term, measurable trends favoring experiential and nature-based travel” under the guidance of “an experienced team of hospitality real estate professionals who are passionate about the epic potential of the outdoors.”

Does being “passionate about the epic potential of the outdoors” strike you (as it does me, I must confess) as being epically over the top? This is the language of someone with remarkably little first-hand experience with what he’s talking about, but who nevertheless wants to get your juices flowing. It’s the language of someone more comfortable with crunching numbers and poring through spreadsheets than dealing with the epic potential of forest fires, mud slides, raging rivers and parched reservoirs–with the “experiential” side of things.

David Smith, undoubtedly a fine human being despite his masters in hospitality from Cornell University, where a lot of this cult-like jargon is birthed, was for 18 months a senior director at a real estate private equity firm, Whitman Peterson. Before that he worked for a couple of firms investing in hospitality real estate–read “hotels”–but his Whitman Peterson stint must have been an eye-opener. That’s where he led a significant deal on behalf of AutoCamp, “the leading provider of upscale outdoor hospitality experiences in the United States,” and that’s presumably when he realized he could “help unlock the potential of quality projects in the great outdoors.”

And so Outside Capital was created.

A couple of observations about what that means. First, there still is a difference between hotels and campgrounds. “Outdoor hospitality” isn’t simply “indoor hospitality” without a common roof, although AutoCamp–apparently Smith’s only brush with “the great outdoors”–strives mightily to obliterate the distinction. The handful of AutoCamp resorts around the country consist primarily of Airstream trailers grouped around a clubhouse of common facilities, such as a snack bar, gift shop and “gathering space”–in other words, and as expressly described by Smith’s former employer, an “Airstream hotel chain,” complete with hotel lobby.

But not everyone is besotted by the Airstream mystique. When AutoCamp earlier this year sought to build a “luxury AutoCamp RV park” on the Carpinteria Bluffs on the southern California coast, the president of the local homeowners’ association dismissed it as nothing more than “a trailer park”–perhaps because the proposal called for 24 Airstreams on just 2.5 acres. Nor was the association enamored of the prospect of 24 aluminum reflectors parked on a bluff; as the association president noted, in addressing the Carpinteria city council, “If cabins were proposed here with earth tone or natural wood exterior, would you recommend they change the material to be shiny metal?”

David Smith, it should be noted, had little if anything to do with the Carpinteria proposal, which currently seems to be in limbo. But the AutoCamp business model apparently is his only exposure to the “epic potential of the outdoors” about which he has become so “passionate,” which I find epically depressing. It and he, alas, also are symptomatic of the way the whole industry is going. Or as Smith’s new enterprise declares, in its “value proposition”: “The outdoor sector is a massive, rapidly growing, and cycle-resistant component of the global travel industry. Outside Capital believes the industry is in the early stages of a secular growth trend driven by meaningful changes in the way people and organizations gather, travel, and recreate.”

So go ahead. Hug a tree. And hang on to your wallet.

RVIA honors the fox in the henhouse

Just in case anyone was wondering about the RV Industry Association’s priorities, all questions were dispelled yesterday, when it bestowed its “National Legislative Award” on Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. RVIA president Craig Kirby justified the trade group’s misfeasance by asserting that Manchin “recognizes that investments in outdoor recreation are vital to our economic, emotional and societal well-being” before adding, in an apparent non sequitur, that Manchin’s “home state sports stunning public lands that bring tourists from around the nation.”

While Manchin bears no responsibility for West Virginia’s stunning public lands, he very much shares responsibility for their ongoing degradation from coal mining. Despite being the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin continues to rake in the Senate’s largest campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal industries, and has a long history of serving their interests. He also has profited for decades from his stake in Enersystems, a supplier of “coal” to a highly polluting power plant near Fairmont, WV.

(Why the quotation marks around “coal”? Because the stuff Enersystems shovels into the Grant Town Power Plant is just one step above peat, a highly polluting mix of low grade coal, clay and rock contemptuously dismissed in the trade as “gob,” short for “garbage of bituminous.”)

But Manchin’s self-serving position in the Senate goes far, far beyond how he makes his money. It’s fair to say that no one person has done more to derail this country’s already fractious efforts at dealing with global warming than Manchin, who single-handedly blocked the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act and its $550 billion in proposed climate spending, much of it to phase out fossil fuels over the next decade. Yet despite his glaring conflicts of interest, the West Virginian justified his obstructionism by claiming a higher purpose, insisting that the nation would be better off if climate legislation had bipartisan support–and so he, Joe Manchin, would turn his energies toward winning that Republican buy-in.

And so there matters stood–the Build Back Better Act in suspended animation–for weeks on end, as the rest of the Democratic party tip-toed around Manchin and Manchin supposedly showed them how this legislating thing is supposed to work. Hands across the aisle and all that, even though the GOP has long made it abundantly clear that the only hand it’s going to show has its middle finger extended. Then again, that wasn’t really the issue, anyway.

It therefore came as no surprise that yesterday–yes, the same day that RVIA gave Manchin its “National Legislative Award”–was also the day that the Washington Times reported that the so-called bipartisan talks were finished. Six weeks and no deal. The Democrats’ self-imposed Memorial Day deadline to get some action on Build Back Better come and gone, with nothing to show for it. The chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had run out the clock, and even though the Democrats are now scrambling for a renewed effort and hoping they can get something done by August 1, they still have not come up with a way to get around the obdurate gob man.

Don’t expect RVIA to weigh in on that issue, however. It’s just happy that Manchin has been supporting much-needed maintenance on public lands–you know, roads and campgrounds for the RVs its members are manufacturing. For RVIA, “outdoor recreation” starts and ends with the wheels. The carbon dioxide-laced air we breathe, the forest fires caused by global warming, the increasingly turbulent moisture-laden atmosphere that produces cataclysmic rains, the years of drought that have sucked the West dry–all the consequences of fossil fuel burning that Manchin continues to protect are for someone else to worry about.

“Economic, emotional and societal well-being”? RVIA, you’ve got to be kidding.

The “service” economy that isn’t

This summer’s outlook was already foreshadowed in January, when the Bureau of Land Management said that Log Gulch Campground in Montana would be closed because of staffing issues. By early May, Michigan gave another indication when it said it had hired fewer than half of the 1,300 seasonal workers it needs to staff state parks, despite pumping wages up to $15 an hour, or 50% higher than the state’s minimum wage; less than a month later, Michigan was pleading with campers to respect the 3 p.m. check-in time because its skeleton workforce couldn’t keep up with site clean-ups.

And now that we’re in the full swing of summer vacation season, recreational facilities and tourist-oriented businesses all across the country are struggling to stay open. Several state parks in Nebraska are cutting hours due to the worker shortage. Trolleys serving Maine’s beaches have been sidelined by a lack of drivers. Municipal swimming pools nationwide are closed or operating at reduced hours for lack of lifeguards. A spokesman for Hospitality Minnesota said this past weekend that the state’s hospitality industry is down 25,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels for this time of the year, even as record numbers of tourists and vacationers are demanding service.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that employment at hotels overall was down 20.7% in March compared with the month before the pandemic hit. A series of graphs with its story shows a stubbornly high quit-rate for jobs in accommodations and food services (which includes RV parks), exceeding all other job categories, even as the number of job openings keeps increasing. “Waiting” on people was never a lot of fun, but even less so when the public overall seems more surly and demanding, and seasonal positions have been exceptionally hard hit. “The share of U.S.-based job searches for seasonal roles on April 10 was down 16.9% and 27.6% from the same date in 2021 and 2019, respectively,” the Journal reported, citing data from the job-placement service Indeed.

One relief valve for such shortages, turned off by the pandemic the past two years but now reopened, has been foreign workers. But while work visas are once again available, what’s often not available is housing for those workers. As explained by an economic development director in Wyoming, “so much of our real estate has been converted to vacation rental properties that affordable housing and summer-only housing is just at a premium”–economic development-speak for “too expensive for service workers to afford.”

Housing prices have also squeezed out local workers, of course, but now that’s compounded by high–and still rising–gas prices that make commutes from areas with more moderate housing prohibitively expensive. Add the reluctance of many older workers and retirees, another traditional source of summer help, to run the risk of Covid-19 exposure, and there simply aren’t enough bodies to meet demand.

Traditional economic theory holds that in this sort of situation, the market will eventually self-correct–that wages will start rising until they’re high enough to attract an adequate labor supply. That may yet happen. Thus far, however, the accommodations and food service industry overall has been cautious at best in responding adequately, and the RV park segment in particular has been downright miserly, with average hourly earnings last summer actually down approximately 16% from the previous summer, according to Labor Department statistics; and while earnings by RV park workers subsequently rebounded and were up 10% year-over-year in March, that was too little too late to retain a chunk of the shrinking work force.

Bolder wage increases would seem to be in order, but taking that road could very well upend the service industry’s business model. Meaningful wage increases invariably will force one of two outcomes: either higher prices, risking the loss of some amount of business, or lower profit margins. Lower margins would be the death of many restaurants, but much of the RV park and campground industry could take them in stride–it just won’t want to.

So here’s my prediction. If you’re an RVer or camper, expect the worst of both worlds: higher prices and less service.

Poking big money is a risky business

I’ve written several times in recent months about deep-pocketed developers whose plans for outsized RV parks have run into unexpected opposition from local residents. For some unfathomable reason, people living quiet lives in rural communities often don’t cotton to the idea of having an extra thousand or more transients rolling into the area, their narrow country roads overrun by rumbling motorhomes and diesel-chugging trucks hauling travel trailers and fifth wheels. They show up at public hearings and form impromptu opposition committees and throw as much sand into the gears as they can, and they most certainly can bog things down.

But big money often claims big friends, and then the fighting can get downright vicious.

One of those fights is shaping up as a court battle in central Kentucky, where an ambitious proposal to build an RV resort of several hundred sites initially was greeted warmly by municipal leaders, who were sold on the idea that the Kentucky Bluegrass Experience Resort would be an economic shot in the arm for the city of Midway. But as the enormity of the project sank in for local residents, raising concerns about increased traffic and the potential for adverse environmental impacts, sentiment quickly shifted–too late, it seemed, because the developers had already obtained a conditional-use permit.

But Midway’s town fathers, undeterred, found an end-run by blocking KBER’s access to the city’s water and sewage services. KBER’s developers cried foul and responded by suing the city’s Board of Adjustments; in May, with the legal proceedings dragging on and Midway’s city council showing no sign of flinching, they filed a motion to add the city itself as a defendant. And there matters stand, with a project once heralded as an economic godsend morphing into a bloated bully determined to have its way regardless of the cost in local goodwill. Even if KBER wins its legal battle, it will have lost the hearts and minds of its neighbors.

Meanwhile, a more nakedly political brawl is shaping up in western North Carolina, where an RV park-building developer in Maggie Valley has enlisted the help of state representative Mark Pless to revoke the town’s zoning authority. Pless’s measure, adopted this past week in the House, will come up for a vote in the Senate this Monday without a hearing, thanks to an arcane maneuver in which Pless found a bill that the Senate had already passed, stripped out its contents–with the consent of its original sponsor–and substituted his own measure in its place.

Prompting Pless’s ambush was a six-month development moratorium that the town of Maggie Valley had adopted after last fall’s election, in which two new aldermen who had campaigned on a “smart growth” platform were swept into office on an avalanche of support. The moratorium was designed to give the town enough time to complete its Unified Development Ordinance, which had been in the works for years. It also threw a monkey wrench into various development proposals from developer Frankie Wood, who has been holding out the lure of resurrecting the town’s fabled amusement park, Ghost Town in the Sky, while pursuing several RV parks, RV planned unit developments and other high-density projects. It didn’t take Wood long to cozy up to Pless.

Indeed, underscoring how personal these conflicts can become, two provisions of Pless’s bill specifically target Maggie Valley–and both expire Jan. 1, 2025, shortly after the terms of the two recently elected aldermen end. Meanwhile, in an ironic juxtaposition, the town’s development moratorium expires this Monday. The now completed development plan is scheduled for a public hearing at 6:30 p.m.–presumably after the North Carolina Senate will have voted on whether to hogtie the town’s ability to control its growth.

Money and ambition are not averse to steamrolling any claims of self-rule and self-determination. And the more money is at stake, the more devastating and widespread the damage.

Mother Nature, in your face

Another month, another marketing opportunity for the people trying to sell you stuff. In this case the stuff is anything to do with getting out of the house, as June is officially designated Great Outdoors Month, “a month to celebrate the outdoors and recognize outdoor recreation’s contributions to the mental, physical and economic health of the United States.”

Or that’s how it’s explained in a somewhat tone-deaf promotional release from the RV Industry Association, coming as it is on the heels of multiple mass shootings, the biggest wildfires in New Mexico’s history, skyrocketing fuel and housing costs and other suggestions that the country’s mental, physical and economic health isn’t quite up to snuff. But urging Americans to get out of the house in June has been a thing since 1998, when Bill Clinton was the first to sign off on the idea, and so we can look forward to a litany of events coordinated by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), whose members “represent the thousands of businesses that produce vehicles, equipment, gear, apparel and services for 144 million¬†outdoor¬†enthusiasts.”

National Go RVing Day, as well as National Get Outdoors Day, are both scheduled for June 11. But also on the calendar will be National Trails Day, the Great American Campout and National Marina Days, all promoted by various ORR members, including the aforementioned RVIA. And as a special bonus–as we wait with bated breath for the U.S. Supreme Court to hit us with its newest ideas about the unenumerated rights we can enjoy–this year’s Great Outdoors Month “will also focus on the principles of Together Outdoors, working to grow diversity, equity, and inclusion in outdoor recreation.”

Not to be an old sourpuss, but here’s a contrarian thought: maybe we should be encouraging people to stay the hell indoors until they understand that “the great outdoors” is not a personal plaything. Or just a bigger, grander version of Disneyland.

One clue as to why that might be a good idea was provided a couple of days ago in Largo, Florida, where the body of a 47-year-old man minus one arm was fished out of a public lake adjacent to a disk golf course. Police speculated that he’d gone for a midnight swim in search of lost discs that he could resell to players on the course. Unfortunately, he did so during alligator mating season, which made an already dicey proposition even more hazardous.

Another clue was offered on Memorial Day in Yellowstone National Park, where a 25-year old woman demonstrated how spatially challenged she was by getting within ten feet of a bison. Park rules stipulate that visitors should stay at least 25 yards–75 feet–from bison, which may look ponderous but can jump six feet vertically and run at 35 miles per hour. In this case the buffalo gored the woman and tossed her ten feet into the air, inflicting a puncture wound and other injuries, but at least she’ll live to tell the tale.

These may be extreme instances, but they’re unsurprising and only the most tragic consequences of propelling an untutored and entitled public into a world they don’t understand and which just doesn’t care about them. It’s not only wildlife with which they have to contend: there are rockfalls and lightning strikes, sudden squalls and sun stroke, forest fires and flash floods and scores of other environmental challenges that can challenge even smart, savvy backcountry adventurers, never mind those whose ideas about the Great Outdoors are shaped by glitzy advertising for outdoor “stuff.”

How about a bag of freshly popped popcorn and a good movie on a big-screen TV? Doesn’t that sound a whole lot more sensible than telling the kids to go play in traffic?

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