Does the National Park Service’s Reservation System Shut Out Non-White, Low-Income Campers?

The federal website excludes some would-be adventurers, a University of Montana study suggests

Tent and night sky
Researchers at the University of Montana find that wealthier, white campers are more likely to make online reservations for campsites at United States national parks.  Pixabay

Travelers who hope to spend a peaceful night sleeping under the stars at one of the country’s national parks must first navigate a complex website up to six months in advance—and beat out thousands of other would-be campers to nab a campsite.

Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration suggests that the federal government’s online reservation system may exclude lower-income and, in some cases, non-white campers. Researchers at the University of Montana find that wealthier, white campers are more likely to make reservations for campsites at United States national parks.

“We’re seeing camping becoming more exclusive through this one reservation system,” Will Rice, an expert in outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana and one of the study’s co-authors, tells David Erickson of the Missoulian.

To study camping equity, the researchers looked at five National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds with two types of campsites in 2019: some that required advance reservations on the federal site Recreation.gov, and others available on a first come, first served basis.

They analyzed Buckhorn Campground at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma; Green River Campground at Colorado National Monument; Loft Mountain Campground at Shenandoah National Park and Oak Ridge Campground at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia; and Saddlehorn Campground at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

Using cell phone location and U.S. Census data, the researchers determined the demographics of campers at each site. In all five campgrounds, they found that the average median annual household income of campers’ home locations was higher at sites that required reservations than those with first come, first-served availability. At three of the five campgrounds, incomes were significantly higher for campers who reserved sites.

Person standing on rock at Shenandoah National Park
Researchers studied campgrounds at five national parks—including Loft Mountain Campground at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia—to understand camper demographics at reservable and non-reservable sites. Shenandoah National Park via Flickr under Public Domain

When they looked at ethnicity, they found that, on average, campers at reservable sites hailed from areas with a higher proportion of white residents. At one site—Oak Ridge Campground in Prince William Forest Park—they found a significantly higher proportion of campers from mostly white areas at reservable sites.

Though the study didn’t explore why these differences exist, the researchers have a few guesses.

Making online reservations requires access to high-speed internet, which remains an issue for millions of Americans. Because reservations for highly competitive campsites opening six months in advance, camping at a national park means having the flexibility to plan a vacation well into the future. That isn’t always an option for people with lower-wage jobs. The system also requires users to have some degree of institutional knowledge, which may be a barrier to entry for newer campers, a growing proportion of whom are people of color.

The findings reinforce the idea that national parks are exclusionary spaces, the researchers writer. Indeed, national park visitors are wealthier, more highly educated and more likely to be white compared to all U.S. residents. And camping itself remains a mostly white activity enjoyed primarily by people with higher incomes.

The outdoor recreation industry is grappling with how to become more diverse and inclusive. But when it comes to representation and racial justice, Glenn Nelson writes for Outside Business Journal, the industry is “in the crawling stage, committing mostly to showy surface actions.”

The researchers note that the study had limitations—some campers don’t have cell phones or may have had location services turned off, and cell phone data was only analyzed at the broader census block group level—and they called for additional research on the topic.

View of rock formations at Colorado National Monument
The researchers recommend the NPS and other agencies pursue "distributive justice" and, possibly, lottery systems for campsite reservations. Gordon Leggett via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Still, as more federally managed campsites require camping reservations (and more national parks consider ticketed entry), the equity issue could get even worse without intervention, the researchers write.

They recommend the NPS and other land management agencies consider “distributive justice” to make their decision-making processes more fair.

There likely isn’t a simple fix, says Rice in a release. “We can’t use tools employed in the private sector. We simply can’t raise prices as they do in the hospitality industry,” he says. “It’s a super-wicked problem.”

Lotteries may be a good way to make camping more equitable, and Rice says he’s pursuing funding to study them.

"You can enter the lottery, and it can even be a weighted lottery or an unweighted lottery, but everyone has more of an equal chance,” Rice tells ABC FOX Montana’s Tessa Nadeau. “It's more of a fair [chance] for the campsite reservation."

Rice’s research is already making waves—he tells ABC Fox Montana that officials at the NPS read the paper, then asked him for a meeting to discuss how to address equity in camping.