National Scenic campsites in the United States that require very competitive reservations welcome more high-income white visitors than campsites that do not require reservations.
That’s according to a recently published study by outdoor recreation researchers at the University of Montana. They found that the federal government’s online campground reservation system struggled with the growing popularity of outdoor recreation and failed to adequately find ways to provide equitable access for all.
Because making a highly sought-after online reservation requires a high-speed internet connection and also requires institutional knowledge of how the system works, fewer first-time and low-income campers can land on coveted sites. Additionally, studies have found that fewer minorities have jobs that allow them to plan vacations six months in advance, which is often the time required by the federal system.
Will Rice, an assistant professor at the WA Franke College of Forestry and Conservation in Missoula, worked with colleagues on a new way to determine who wins coveted online reservations for national parks, monuments and recreation areas, which are extremely competitive.
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Using location data from cellphones sold by companies that run apps on your phone, researchers were able to trace visitors to reserved campgrounds to the ZIP codes where they live and then match them with US Census data. on ethnicity and income. Campsites that require reservations see higher numbers of visitors from areas with significantly higher portions of white residence and higher annual revenues.
“Two-thirds of North American residents camp at least once a year, so it really affects the majority of American residents,” Rice explained.
He noted that studies have found that the popularity of camping has skyrocketed during the pandemic, with a fivefold increase in the number of first-time campers. Rice also noted that unlike outdoor activities like skiing and hiking, non-white people are heavily represented in camping.
“Camping is something that’s pretty representative of the American population, in terms of who does it,” Rice said. “So to see the opposite trend potentially in national parks, that means we see camping becoming more exclusive through this unique reservation system. These are things that affect everyone, all social groups at all incomes. »
The federal campground and cabin reservation system, available online at Recreation.gov, can be intimidating and complicated for someone who has never used it before or has no one to teach them the ropes. For one, reservations for certain dates open at a specific time, depending on your time zone. Then, Rice said, you could be competing with 19,000 other users for a 57-slot campsite, according to federal statistics.
A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that “Blacks and Latinos remain less likely than white adults to say they own a traditional computer or have high-speed internet at home.
“To use these systems, you need high-speed internet, which can be a problem for some campers, especially in remote locations like we have in Montana,” he explained. “You also need flexibility to plan your trip six months from now. People with low-income jobs often don’t have the ability to plan their vacations that far in advance.
Rice said the disparities that allow whiter, wealthier people to access these locations have been exacerbated in recent years by the rise of tech companies that can, for a fee, alert customers as soon as a campsite becomes available.
He thinks one solution, now used at some Yosemite campgrounds, could be a lottery system for long-term reservations on a daily basis.
“We’re hoping for funding at UM to dig deeper into the lottery system to see if it works,” Rice said.
The study for UM was done in collaboration with Associate Professor Jennifer Thomsen and graduate students Jaclyn Rushing and Peter Whitney, with funding from UM’s Center for Population Health Research.
Rice said he obtained cellphone data from more than 3,000 users and reviewed five campgrounds across the country, including sites in Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma.
The study can be viewed online at bit.ly/3LPc7eK.
Rice said that campgrounds in America were originally “conceptualized by the recreation class to mimic the suburbs”.
“There has always been an aspect of exclusivity in national parks,” Rice said. “And to a large extent they remain exclusive.”