Clink, clink, clink I’d hear. The sound of hammer on tent-peg, or maybe rock on tent-peg, depending on how well supported the person’s camping trip was. Occasionally it was ‘ow, ow, ow’ as someone tried to put tent pegs into ground with their hands, fists or feet.
This was the life of camping in national parks, sometimes ‘car-camping’ where you bring your camping gear with you in your car, sometimes hiking in with the gear in rucksacks. National parks, slow travel and camping and through that connecting with the natural world has a long history with me. In fact, it is an important part of LoST at least in my experience. Camping grounds in national parks were almost always basic and they attracted like-minded campers who were often there for a few days of peace and quiet, some walking, some relaxing, some reconnecting.
I remember especially the words of Paddy Pallin, perhaps the father of bushwalking, light-weight camping in the Australian bush, when he dedicated his book on camping (first published if my memory serves me correctly in the 1930s) to ‘the people of the little tents’. One of the significant inspirations for me was the idea that by camping with less (and walking, in the specific example of hiking), you could feel a closer connection with the natural world and begin a process of re-imagining. Of course that has now become an important part of my professional life – and the idea of camping as a way of re-imagining connections and relationships with the natural world hasn’t left me. My professional life, over some 20 years, has focused substantially on how our connections with the natural world need to be, and can be, re-imagined, and especially how national parks can facilitate all this.
All this is by way of introduction to something that is being proposed by the state of Victoria, in Australia. As reported in an opinion piece in The Age newspaper of January 8, 2014 (available here) a proposal is afoot to charge camping fees for what are categorised as ‘basic camping’ sites. Usually these sites contain a fireplace, perhaps a drop toilet (with a small water tank off the roof, with some luck), tables and that’s often it.
The things about basic camping sites is that they are basic! That is, there are very few facilities. And this is what’s attractive to many campers – they want to be more independent and less ‘cossetted’ (as the article calls it) by camping grounds with facilities, electricity or whatever. People don’t need or want these kinds of facilities. If they did, they wouldn’t be camping at a basic campsite! Actually, I preclude those campers who roll up with noisy generators, TV sets and loud music in their large RVs and generally create havoc not only with the wildlife but the other campers who are there for some serious quiet and reconnecting with nature – but discussing what this represents about travel is for another post.
And now there’s a proposal to charge for these sites – $13 per night has been reported. I see this as a significant shift in thinking about what national parks are and what their role is vis-a-vis the human experience.
An important role national parks have relates to those non-economic services provided to people/users – aesthetics, possibilities to re-connect with the natural world, experiencing sites, sounds, smells that aren’t always or even usually experienced. These experiences are not mediated by economic systems – they are mediated by the ecosystems national parks protect, and by the users who seek out these because they represent a different set of values. So putting a $13 fee on this is actually commodifying all this – turning it into an economic relationship, an economic ‘package’. This continues a trend in Australia and elsewhere – more nature-based tourism in national parks means more money coming into the coffers of Government agencies.
I understand the arguments often put forward regarding cost recovery and also how there should be an equal playing field in places where Government agencies compete with private operators. But I think there are two important points. First, of course charge cost recovery, or even commercial rates, if you are providing fully-serviced camp grounds, with electricity, toilets, bathrooms, huts, shelters etc etc etc. These are expensive and I understand the need to charge (even if I don’t totally understand the logic of having them in a national park, but that’s just me being the traditionalist) to represent equal competition and to recover costs. But basic camping is not in competition with commercial operators. People go to basic camping sites because, as I mentioned before, they are basic! If they wanted all the facilities, they would already be at the commercial sites nearby to most parks.
But do we really need cost-recovery on basic campsites? How much can it cost to drive by one sometimes? There aren’t many facilities to look after – no rubbish to collect, drop toilets don’t need that much cleaning, no supplies need to be refilled because there are no canteens (come to think of it – no canteen staff either!). And in any case, surely basic camping is much more aligned with the important educative and restorative role parks play for humanity and should therefore be a ‘service’ rather than a ‘cost’ to be recovered (especially in a rich country like Australia)?
National parks therefore should not be viewed only as economic units which have costs but mechanisms for sustainable futures and conservation. It would be great to see the Victorian and the Australian approach at the cutting edge of all this. But this idea is not getting us there.
And all of this is prompted by a proposal to cost something that previously was free. It’s not the simple change of ‘having to pay’ that is the problem. It’s the significant ideological shift this represents that is the point of contention.
Our lives are governed by things beyond economics, despite what various economists and policy-makers are trying to impose on us. Governments have a more sophisticated role in conservation and sustainability than mere cost recovery and commercialisation and it’s time this was recognised by agencies and their political masters.
Chip, chip, chip I hear and its not the sound of hammer on tent-peg. It’s the chipping away of the very concept of a national park as we know it, and as we SHOULD know it…