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.

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