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America's National Parks could be one week away from handing campgrounds over to private companies

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Autumn - Heintooga Ridge Road
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall

A reminder—if the hundreds of thousands of people now fleeing for their lives in Syria had not already made it clear—that even as he slides toward the gulf of impeachment, Donald Trump is still doing his best to destroy everything good on his way down. That includes continuing his efforts to gift every square inch of public land to someone who dropped seven figures or more into one of his slush funds. And as Yahoo News reports, that includes an ongoing scheme to turn the National Park system, also known as “America’s best idea,” into a series of greasy theme parks.

On September 24, the Department of the Interior’s skull-achingly named “Subcommittee on Recreation Enhancement” (SORE) produced the latest missive in its plan to flood parks with the requisite number of four-wheelers, roller coasters, and pancake pantries. This particular plan would call for selling off the 130 campgrounds operated by the Park Service to private companies who would provide more “services.” In the form of four-wheelers, pancakes, etc. And they have a great approach. They intend to start with the parks that are most pristine, most unspoiled, most like the genuine preserves of natural beauty they were created to be. Or, as SORE would have it, the parks “with low levels of visitor services.” Then, once they’ve demonstrated that people will pay for zip-lines and mini-golf in those locations, they’ll expand the program to the parks where the natural attractions have already been made redundant.

There’s no intention of stopping with just the National Parks. SORE will then export the program to other public lands, including national forests, wildlife areas, and just about anywhere the Bureau of Land Management roams. Only don’t expect those areas to be erecting Ferris wheels, because SORE has another idea for how to handle most public lands along with public campgrounds; Sell them. Sell them all.

One of the most interesting items about the SORE plan is that it wasn’t really written by the Department of the Interior. It was written for them. The real author of the memo, which is titled “campground modernization/expansion” is Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition. The American Recreation Coalition (whose longtime website appears to be mysteriously missing in action) was created in 1979 for the express purpose of “catalyzing public / private partnerships.” By which they mean making private profits from public lands. They represent the “motorized recreation industry” including makers of snowmobiles, motorcycles, boats, and RVs, as well as amusement parks and food vendors. It’s a group that doesn’t just include the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, but the Walt Disney Company. A group that sells things made to smash any moment of tranquility, together with people who have demonstrated that they can make much more money from a faux wilderness loaded with animatronic bears than anyone can get from the real thing.

The American Recreation Coalition is the group proudly behind the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program that went into effect over the last two years. That program that penalizes hikers and others who want to visit genuinely wild areas of parks by collecting a “recreation fee” and subsidizes businesses that bring in for-profit, generally motorized, “recreation.” The SORE plan is absolutely nothing new for them. Since 1998, ARC has been pushing a neat solution to handling America’s public campgrounds—give them away. Or rather, hand them over to ARC’s members so they can run them at a profit.

Anyone who has ever visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Author’s note: As I have done dozens of times, including this summer) is bound to have encountered the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. These are towns that seem to be entirely composed of the kind of “recreational opportunities” that ARC approves from theme park rides, to go-kart tracks, to T-shirt shops bearing logos for theme park rides and go-kart tracks. Meanwhile, right next door, the park itself plays host to the most diverse hardwood forest in the world, including a host of plants, fish, and amphibians found absolutely nowhere else. The Smokies are in no sense “wilderness,” but they are a green, cool oasis rising up above the surrounding towns—the last worn-down remains of mountains that towered over the brand new continent long before the first dinosaur appeared. And those ancient hills are still covered with trees that were driven to their distant heights when the glaciers poured down across the north a hundred thousand years ago. They are unmatched. Unmatchable. 

That remains true even though the Park Service has made it clear that plants and animals inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park are deeply threatened by both air pollution and climate change.

ARC is dedicated to the idea that the inside of that park … should be like the outside. That what the cool waters of Abram’s Falls need is a goofy golf, Cade’s Cove would be a great spot for four-wheel rentals, and Clingman’s Dome could really use a ski lift. That all of it would be better if visitors were never more than five minutes from a funnel cake.

Officially the people inside the Interior Department are saying that the ARC / SORE plan for selling off campgrounds and expanding “recreational activities” is still in its early stages and that there will be time for public comments ahead. But that’s not what the author of the memo is saying. ARC’s Crandall is claiming that the plan to sell off campgrounds is a done deal, that it has been “unanimously approved,” and that it will go to the new head of the National Park System, former corporate lobbyist David Bernhardt, next week. 

Next week.

Crandall says the SORE plan will not be altered, or open for comment, or in for any adjustments by long time Park Service experts. It will go to Bernhardt “in its current form.” And when it does, it will open the door for long-term contracts that will be difficult to roll back, no matter what happens in the House impeachment inquiry.

Because, somehow, the only person who seems to get away with breaking legal contracts is Donald Trump.

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