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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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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RV chickens coming home to roost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the tin cup gets passed around yet again.

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

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

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

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We’re not ready for the new normal

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

Well, maybe sorta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RV meetings will ignore the elephant

Private campground owners from around the country will descend on Orlando, Florida the next couple of weeks for two of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) the week after. And next week, at least, the subject most prominently on the agenda–as it was last year–will be electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality.”

How prominently? For openers, a plenary panel led by ARVC president Paul Bambei on Tuesday morning will provide “a vision of the future where EVs play an integral role in outdoor hospitality.” Immediately following will be a lunch panel, “Your Campground’s EV Road Map,” described in early convention programs in language exactly the same as used for the earlier panel. Apparently this will not be a fast-charging discussion.

Two predictions about this confab. Number one, the elephant in the room will be completely ignored. Number two, while convention-goers will be urged to start installing EV chargers at their campgrounds, little to no attention will be paid to the costs of such an amenity. While much will be made of how EV chargers are a necessary accommodation for a changing customer base (ARVC already is claiming that EV owners are currently twice as likely as everyone else to be campers), to which will be added the observation that campgrounds offering such chargers will have a competitive edge, any analysis of the costs that face campgrounds going the EV route will be sketchy at best.

It’s not that the charging station itself is prohibitively expensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation of a Level 2 EV charger, which is sufficient for a full recharge overnight. (Level 3 “fast” chargers are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at $20,000 per charger.) Assuming, therefore, that a campground wanted to ease into the EV world with half-a-dozen Level 2 chargers, it could do so for $6,000 or so, which won’t break anyone’s bank.

The problem is how to recoup the “fuel” costs. The amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, prompting most campgrounds that offer charging stations to simply absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. But as more EVs start hooking up to a campground’s grid, that nominal expense will become a growing hit against the bottom line–inevitably prompting campground owners to wonder just how much of an increased cost they incurred and how they can start charging for the energy they’d been giving away.

The answer, alas, is “it depends.”

Electricity sales, unlike gasoline, are monopolized by electric utilities operating under rules that vary from state to state, with billing practices that vary from one utility to another. Most states, for example, don’t allow resellers of electricity to make a profit in doing so–all they can do is pass along their costs. And while such restrictions are gradually loosening up, seven states still regulate EV charging as the exclusive domain of electric companies, as described in a recent Politico article.

A second variable is what’s known as a “demand charge,” which homeowners don’t encounter but some business owners–including those who own campgrounds–know all too well. Demand charges are meant to compensate utilities for providing enough delivery infrastructure to meet spikes in demand caused by businesses with a lot of highly variable consumption–such as campgrounds. The demand charge is a base fee that is multiplied by the kilowatts consumed at peak demand each month, and is in addition to the per kilowatt cost of the electricity itself.

The problem for campground owners is that there is no one standard demand charge across the country: such charges vary wildly from one utility to another. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add an incremental boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill, as the higher demand charge will be multiplied across all of that month’s kilowatt consumption.

(Campground owners, for these and other reasons, should completely abandon any idea of installing Level 3 charging stations. As Politico reports, “Electrify America, a leading charging provider, says that demand charges are up to 80 percent of the cost” of operating Level 3 charging stations.)

Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant, and undoubtedly will not be something the ARVC panels explore in any meaningful fashion, if at all. But back to that elephant. The other subject the convention won’t address–my second prediction–is the growing vulnerability of RV parks and campgrounds to climate change and extreme weather.

It’s ironic, actually, that ARVC will be meeting in a state that only weeks ago was battered so severely by Hurricane Ian that several dozen campgrounds were shut down, some permanently. Horrendous as the destruction was, and as inevitable as it is that similarly extreme storms will strike not just Florida but many other states, not one mention of the climate threat appears in the convention’s program. The cost and availability of flood or property insurance, best practices in fire- or flood-prone areas, how to determine when it no longer makes sense to rebuild–all these and a host of other pressing topics never made it into the program.

It’s likely that the KOA convention will be just as mum on the subject, since the industry’s “thought leaders” seem incapable of actually leading on so threatening an issue. One might wonder how much longer they can ignore the elephant in the room, but the fact that they’ll be doing so in Florida suggests their myopia cannot be overestimated.

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Attention, RVers: it’s brutal out there

Peace River Campground, Arcadia, FL, two days after Ian struck.

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Those words were written by Samuel Johnson about the sentencing of an American clergyman, William Dodd. Exactly 245 years later (as of Sept. 19), they could–or should!–apply to anyone witnessing the twin ravages of Fiona and Ian, which between them tore up tens of billions of dollars in real estate, immiserated countless thousands and claimed an as-yet unmeasured loss of life. If contemplating such destruction doesn’t concentrate the collective mind, we are indeed doomed.

At this writing, the full extent of the devastation in Florida is still unknown, and the swamping of huge swaths of the southeast is just beginning. But the forlorn reports have started trickling in: “The Peace River is still rising!” announced a Facebook post from the Peace River Campground this morning. “If you had ANYTHING on the property, it’s UNDER WATER and not accessible. . . .The water is to the ceiling in the office. . . . We tried pulling campers to higher ground but the river was just too high. It’s catastrophic devastation.”

The Frog Creek RV Resort reported that it has no electricity and no certainty of when it will. “We have power lines down. Our staff is working hard to clean up the debris. Currently park is closed.” The San Carlos RV Park, meanwhile, said it had “sustained massive damage,” adding: “Our computers and records are inaccessible at this time. If you had reservations obviously that won’t happen. We will be working to refund deposits as soon as humanly possible, but please understand the immense task in front of us.”

Those and similar stories will be repeated dozens of times in the next few days, which is tragic enough. But the bigger tragedy is that they’ll be repeated next year, and the year after that–just as they were last year, and the year before that. And it’s not just hurricanes and subsequent flooding that will be the cause, or just RV parks and campgrounds along the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard that will be affected. Tragedy can be caused by too much water, but also by too little.

So it is that the National Interagency Fire Center announced today that 12 new large fires were reported yesterday alone, eight in Idaho and one each in Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Idaho and Montana currently have the most large fires, 59, out of 88 total across the West. To date, 6.9 million acres of U.S. land have burned in 2022, forcing thousands of evacuations and causing more than $11.2 billion in damage, according to Bankrate, an insurance website–and fire season isn’t nearly over.

Hurricanes become stronger and more frequent as ocean water gets warmer, while warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in heavier rainfall. But the same warming climate that pumps too much moisture into one part of the country is baking it out of another, causing widespread–and growing–aridification of all the states from the Central Plains west to the Pacific. The resulting tinderbox makes “enjoying the outdoors” ever more of a gamble, threatening the viability not just of camping but of fishing, as streams dry out and lakes shrink; wine making, as wildfire smoke contaminates grapes and bark beetles start killing off drought-stressed conifers and now oak trees in wine country; and farming and ranching. (As just one example of the latter, 39% of respondents to an August survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation said that wildfires have contributed to crop losses and herd sell-offs in their area in 2022.)

All of the above suggests a screaming need to reevaluate our relationship to the Great Outdoors–to “concentrate the mind wonderfully” on the hard questions reality is demanding we confront. Instead, the reflexive response, as already articulated by the Florida RV Park and Campground Association, is to pull together and rebuild and show some grit. “Our park owners and operators are some of the best people in the world,” association president Bobby Cornwell assured his members in an email today. “I have no doubt the industry will rally together and support all those in need.” Southwest Florida “will, without a doubt, be rebuilt and will be paradise once again.”

But doing more of the same, if spunky and admirable in a fatalistic sort of way, avoids the even harder work of figuring out how to avoid a repeat. It doesn’t engage the mind at all, much less concentrate it. Doing more of the same only assures an endless Groundhog Day-cycle of rebuilding and devastation and rebuilding again, until there’s no energy or money or hope left.

Poetically, both KOA and the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds will be holding their annual conventions in Orlando in November–long enough from now for a lot of the clean-up to be done, soon enough that the scars left by Ian will be inescapable. Both meetings would be ideal opportunities to examine what just happened, what is happening elsewhere in the country because of climate change, and how the campground industry could better respond to this existential threat. Ideal–but don’t count on it. That would require too much concentration.

William Dodd, it’s also worth remembering, was hanged.

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Col. fire should be a wake-up call

Nearly a thousand Colorado homes just burned to the ground, not in a California urban-woodland interface but in an area far more typical of suburbs anywhere in the United States. That causes a problem for climate-change deniers, for whom it’s an article of faith that California’s devastating forest fires have nothing to do with extreme weather and are simply the result of poor forestry management. If only the state did a better job of thinning out its underbrush, they argue, those fires wouldn’t have occurred, or at least would not have been as extensive.

But what do you say about a wildfire that had nothing to do with poor forestry management because no forests were involved? A wildfire that occurred in December, far outside the “normal” fire season?

Unfortunately, where there’s a will there’s a way–and the will among this group is to deny any facts that would require, if actually confronted, some changes. Perhaps some personal inconvenience. Maybe even some expense, to finally pay for what the economists call “negative externalities,” like pollution and resource consumption. Because when you get right to it, what much of the climate-denying comes down to is, “I’m going to do what I want and no one is going to tell me otherwise, because I know what’s best for me.” Note that this stance makes no mention of you or the next generation.

A recent case in point is California’s recently passed legislation to ban the sale by 2024 of small, off-road gasoline engines, such as those found in lawn mowers, pressure washers and leaf blowers. The ban would then be extended to portable generators by 2028, as the latest step in the state’s aggressive effort to transition toward a carbon-free economy–carbon, as most people understand, being the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. And small engines, it turns out, are enormously more polluting than car engines, which have become much more efficient (and therefore less polluting) after years of tightened emission standards.

How polluting? The California Air Resources Board calculated that operating a typical gas-powered lawn mower for an hour emits as much pollution as driving a car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Operating a backpack leaf blower for an hour emits pollution comparable to driving that same car from Los Angeles to Denver. In recent years, total particulate emissions from small engines began to exceed that of all of the state’s passenger cars.

Many RVers, however, understood only that their ox was being gored because of the coming ban on portable generators. When ran a story about the legislation it got almost half-a-million hits, or ten times the readership of its usual most-read stories. The comments that flowed were so vituperative and obscene that the site’s moderators called it quits after cleaning up the language in more than 200 responses, announcing, “Comments are closed. Too many of you are just bashing each other. Take it elsewhere, please.”

Wading through the emotional maelstrom in an effort to understand its underlying logic is to scrape at a collective id of mewling self-entitlement. “I pay for the national parks in California and they are trying to restrict my personal use of them,” complained one reader, saying he wanted to find a lawyer to file “a federal suite [sic] against California on a pro bono basis,” which is nonsensical on its face. “The environmental nuts are going to cost us huge amounts of money, ruin our lifestyles and livelihoods with this totally unnecessary push to go green,” added another, who went on to claim that his air in Phoenix is just fine without such measures, thank you very much. Anyone who has been in that city during a temperature inversion knows better.

And then there was the curiously paradoxical response from a woman who wrote: “The elected officials in California couldn’t care less what the general public says.” Pause to absorb that, then: “Most of the people who live there voted for this crap, so they aren’t going to want any change.” And then, just for good measure: “Climate change is another scam, like the covids.”

There’s a lot more like that, and not much sense in pawing at it except to note that these kinds of non-factual temper tantrums make the difficult job of responding to climate change even more fraught. It’s all about the carbon, and keeping as much of it out of the atmosphere as possible, and yes, that’s going to require lifestyle changes–which, for a certain segment of the population, amounts to a transgression of personal sovereignty. It’s too bad that a disproportionate segment of the RVing public seems to come from that mind-set, because ultimately their self-serving ignorance could tarnish all RVers.

Next post: the inherent contradiction in boondocking

Who will speak for the RVers?

If there is a third rail in RV world, it’s climate change.

Yesterday I published a piece in RVtravel that was too wonky by far, but which tried to make the point that no one is fighting on behalf of RVers in today’s great climate-change battles. More specifically, there has been no one representing RVers and RV campground owners in the weeks of intense negotiations over the Build Back Better proposal (often referred to simply as “the reconciliation bill”) that has been stymied, in large part, by a U.S. Senator invested in the fossil fuel industry.

There are, I pointed out, two national industry groups that embrace the outdoors. There’s the Outdoor Industry Association, which despite having more than 1,200 members across the full spectrum of outdoor activities and equipment makers includes only one RV campground owner, Kampgrounds of America. And then there’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which encompasses nearly three-dozen trade associations–including the Outdoor Industry Association–and the three largest RV industry representatives: the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

As I further wrote, the Outdoor Industry Association has been lobbying the past several weeks on behalf of the Build Back Better proposal because of its significant commitment to combating climate change. Only by adopting such an ambitious agenda can we “ensure the success of the outdoor industry and the American economy and protect the health of the planet,” the association has argued. But the association clearly has been unable to convince the rest of its peers to follow its lead, and for the past several months the roundtable has studiously avoided any reference to climate change. It has not lobbied for passage of the Build Back Better proposal. It has, for all practical purposes, left the RVing community sidelined in one of the most, if not the most, urgent environmental struggles of the age.

That’s the point I tried to make. In retrospect, I did a poor job of it. As my RVtravel editors pointed out, the piece drew a near-record low readership. Few RVers wanted to read what I had to say–and of those who did, only a couple responded with favorable comments. The preponderant unfavorable responses, meanwhile, either largely missed my point (for which I take the blame) or are still mired in antediluvian talking points, claiming we’ve always had climate change, or confusing climate with weather. And some simply didn’t give a damn, such as the reader who assured us, ” I have no qualms in my Class A burning diesel all over the US, and will continue to do so as long as I can.”

A more sophisticated response came in an email to me from a representative of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who felt that what I had written was “very disappointing and factually inaccurate.” To substantiate that latter point, he appended four PDFs of letters and statements that supposedly reflected the roundtable’s work on “climate resilient infrastructure.”

It was a mixed bag. Two of the PDFs spoke to the infrastructure bill that got strong bipartisan support months ago and was not at issue in my column. The other two were copies of letters sent in August and September to House and Senate committee chairs, neither of which mentioned climate change and both of which urged even more infrastructure funding than had been allocated in the infrastructure bill itself. Requested were “additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Program, improving trails that serve underserved communities, funding capital maintenance projects, restoring ecological integrity, creating sustainable recreation infrastructure, expanding access, promoting tourism and more.”

In other words, more of the same.

As I responded in my answering email, “My disappointment with the ORR is that while it lobbies for making the outdoors more accessible to the general public, it sits on the sidelines of a climate change debate about an incomparably more fundamental need, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Overworked though the metaphor may be, the ORR is lobbying for more deck chairs and a bigger brass section in the shipboard orchestra while there’s a furious debate in the control room over what to do about that iceberg looming on the port bow.”

It should go without saying that for most RVers and most campground owners, the compelling attraction of what they do is being in the great outdoors, of getting closer to nature and the environment. That environment is being transfigured before our very eyes, day by day and week by week, into something ugly and hostile to human life–and that transformation is a direct result of human action. If we are to restore and reclaim the environment we love, the very first step will be to acknowledge that we are at fault; and being at fault, we will have to change our behavior to regain what is slipping through our fingers.

That means calling the problem by its name: climate change, catalyzed by human production of greenhouse gases. And it means accepting that climate change cannot be stopped, much less reversed, without significant changes in our habits and behavior–and there’s the rub. For who wants to do that? Yet the inescapable physics of it all is that, sooner or later, change will be forced on us nevertheless. Nature will see to it–unless we get ahead of it by initiating change on our own.

To do that, however, we need to start talking–and so far, the RVing community hasn’t found its voice.

Cognitive dissonance, part 2

The article in Woodall’s Campground Management that I mentioned in my previous post, regarding efforts by California campgrounds to “stay on top of” the wildfire situation, includes an interesting aside that underscores why we seem incapable of making any headway against extreme weather-driven calamities.

Interviewing Dyana Kelly, president of the CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance, the article notes that a “recent win” for the trade group was an exemption from a state rule that would have required Class A diesel pushers to participate in an annual emissions inspection and maintenance program. First unveiled this past March, the rule drew an instant and sharp response not only from CampCalNOW, but also from ARVC and RVIA, two national trade groups that declared their mission was to “protect the public” from “overly burdensome” regulations on motorhomes.

The new regs, which remain applicable to commercial truckers, create a smog-check program to ensure that diesel engines in the state have properly functioning emissions controls. Improper control systems, it should go without saying, add to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, which further increase global warming and thus exacerbate California’s drought and the wildfires it promotes. In other words, a campground industry that idealizes the environment for recreation is simultaneously doing its damnedest to block efforts to protect that environment from its own depredations.

There’s no question that California’s motorhome owners would have been somewhat inconvenienced by having to trundle off to an emissions inspection station once a year. And there’s also no question that some of those owners would have been hit with the financial costs of repairing or upgrading equipment that failed the smog test. But keeping any equipment in working order is the cost of ownership, and that cost should be borne by the actual owner, not by the broader public–which is what unchecked polluters are imposing. “Protecting the public” should mean all of the public, not just the motorhome-owning portion of it.

Instead of knee-jerk opposition to any regulatory attempt to control the external costs of private actions, the campground industry’s lobbyists and trade groups would do everyone a service by acknowledging reality and working toward alternatives. In Europe, for instance, which is hard at work on eliminating all diesel engines, the RV industry is years ahead of the U.S. in moving to alternative power sources. German-based Erwin Hymer Group, as one example, is developing not just electric motorhomes, but travel trailers–powered in part by roof-top solar panels–with electrified axles that reduce the amount of power needed by tow vehicles. How cool is that? And how not American. . . .

Ironically, Erwin Hymer was acquired by Thor Industries a couple of years ago, which might lead one to think such cutting-edge technology would quickly show up on this side of the Atlantic. Guess again. Apparently, it’s easier simply to lobby for the status quo, regardless of the greater social cost that entails, and celebrate successful obstruction of change as a “win.”

Cognitive dissonance

If you want to experience mental whiplash, pick up the most recent copy of Woodall’s Campground Magazine and open to page 3. The top and middle of the page feature Noah’s Ark pictures and stories of recent flooding of campgrounds in Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Subsequent pages have stories about KOA reopening its Florida Keys campground, four years after it was demolished by Hurricane Ida, and about California’s campgrounds working “to stay on top of [the] wildfire situation.” America’s campgrounds, in other words, have been getting pounded by extreme weather.

But then, as if to declare that not all is gloom and doom, at the bottom of that same page 3 is a story headlined, “Glamping Show USA Anticipates Large In-Person Event.” Oh, those plucky glampers.

The glamping extravaganza is scheduled to start this Monday in Aurora, Col., and organizers say registration is “way ahead of the pace” from the pre-Covid display in 2019. More than 50 glamping “structures” are being featured, from tipis to yurts to large tents, cabins and conestoga “wagons”–all of which, it should be noted, are sitting ducks for destruction by flood or fire. RVs, if nimble, can be moved out of disaster’s path relatively easily. Structures, even lightweight canvas ones, not so much.

On the other hand, there may be heightened demand for more glamping opportunities these days: it turns out that the Veranda Suite at the Beverly Wilshire has been closed until next year for renovations, which is sure to create a demand for alternatives. The roof-top Veranda Suite, for those who haven’t kept up with this sort of thing, includes a 2,140-square-foot terrace on which is perched a 10-foot tall, 16-foot diameter tent, outfitted with a queen-size bed, crystal chandelier, marble lamps and fur rugs. It also has an unparalleled view of the Los Angeles skyline, backlit by the occasional forest fire in the surrounding foothills.

That’s $3,500 a night that would go a whole lot further in Aurora, where first-class hotel rooms can be had for less than $200.

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