The Wegge family at Yellowstone National Park (from left: Connor, Brenda, Alec, Paige and Tim)

The following column by new Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) Chairman Tim Wegge of Burlington RV Superstore in Sturtevant, Wis., appears in the January issue of RV Executive Today and addresses the pressing need for modernization at the country’s national parks. 

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and we’re a long way off before the camping season begins in mid-April, when hibernating Wisconsinites will once again see the sun. Much of the country is caught up in a widespread deep freeze. Even the Deep South is experiencing some spectacularly low temperatures. But recent reports about RV shipments in November and December should warm up all of us a bit and overshadow the fact that winter won’t officially end until March 20. 

Both sales and enthusiasm are high right now. Dealers experienced record traffic and sales, even in November and December — and even in the northern states, where RVers had already winterized their units and put them in storage.

When 2017’s final numbers are compiled, the industry is expected to have topped 500,000 RVs shipped, and analysts are projecting a 3% increase on top of that in 2018.

With all this good news about RV sales, record shipments, and growing enthusiasm for the RV lifestyle, I can’t help but ask myself a very important question. Where are our customers going to go with all these RVs? Will there be enough campsites for them? We’re focused on growing the number of RV-owning households, but who’s focused on growing the number of campsites needed to accommodate them?

Just a few short years ago, my wife and I headed west with our kids to experience Yellowstone National Park. We had done some research beforehand and learned that accommodations for our 40-foot diesel motorhome and the dingy we were towing were extremely limited inside the park. But it wasn’t until we actually got there that we discovered just how incredibly unprepared Yellowstone is to accept modern RVs. We ended up having to stay outside the park in two different campgrounds. We wondered if other national parks suffered from the same lack of infrastructure.

Data over the past three years from KOA’s national surveys show that more than a million new families begin camping each year. However, the federal campground system hasn’t kept up with demand, and National Park Service data shows a huge drop in overnight camping in its sites. RV stays since 1987 are down an incredible 37%, and total overnight stays in national parks are down 12 percent.

Why the drop? Simply put, our public campgrounds aren’t equipped to accommodate today’s recreational vehicles, so RVers are bypassing public campgrounds altogether. And this isn’t limited to national parks. Here in Wisconsin, we have 6,000 campsites on public lands and a law that limits the number of electric sites to 30%. In other words, only 1,800 of those 6,000 campsites have electric hookups.

When I asked the state department of natural resources the reason for the limit, I was told that in 1983 some legislator thought we needed to keep 70% of campsites primitive. Seriously? Do you have this issue in your state, too? How can we turn it around?

Campsites need to be modernized and expanded to accommodate RVs with slide outs and updated to meet contemporary standards for electrical and water hookups. RVDA and RVIA are working through the recently organized Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable (ORIR) to bring this issue to the attention of leaders in Washington, D.C. The goal is to get the federal government to explore agreements with states, counties, and the for-profit sector to operate popular state and national park campgrounds. The length of these management agreements should be extended so that partners can achieve reasonable returns on the investment needed to construct and improve these campgrounds and the infrastructure required.

Private operators will provide RVers the accommodations they seek and reverse the decades-long decline in overnight stays on our most treasured public lands. As RVDA, the ORIR roundtable, and other recreation industry leaders take steps in this direction, we’ll keep you updated and ask for your support and involvement.