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Exclusionary Effects of Campsite Allocation through Reservations in U.S. National Parks: Evidence from Mobile Device Location Data

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https://js.sagamorepub.com/jpra/article/view/11392 Campsites represent highly sought after recreational amenities in the national parks of the United States. Equitable allocation of scarce recreational resources has long been a key management issue in U.S. national parks, but has become in- creasingly difficult in an era of increasing demand. At present, a growing number of national park campsites are allocated through an online reservation system well in advance of a camper’s arrival at a park. Compounding the challenge of allocat- ing these campsites is a long history of exclusivity within national park camping— institutionalized through campground design and predicated on a legacy of the leisure class’s affinity for camping in national parks. Given national park camping’s history of exclusivity, this exploratory study seeks to explore how online reserva- tion systems may impact the demographics of national park campers. Using mo- bile device location data, estimated demographics were calculated for campers in five national park campgrounds in the U.S. that each contained some sites requir- ing reservations and some sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. We detail results from analyses of variance between campsites requiring reservations and those that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Results suggest that for each of the five campgrounds, those campers camping in sites that require res- ervations came from areas with higher median household incomes, on average. In three of the five campgrounds, this difference was significant. Additionally, in an urban-proximate setting, those camping in sites requiring reservations came from areas with a higher portion of White residency than those campers in campsites not requiring reservations, on average. We conclude with discussion that includes management implications concerning the growing prominence of online reser- vation systems for outdoor recreation amenities, and a brief research agenda for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as they relate to campgrounds. Principally, the former group of implications includes the realization that online reservation systems present the unintended consequence of excluding low-income, and per- haps non-White, would-be campers—a conclusion drawn from the results of this exploratory study. This discussion includes an analysis of the distributive justice of online reservation systems.
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Running head: EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 1
Pre-print ahead of press: Rice, W. L., Rushing, J. R., Thomsen, J. M., & Whitney, P. (2022).
Exclusionary effects of campsite allocation through reservations in U.S. national parks:
Evidence from mobile device location data. Journal of Park and Recreation
Administration. http://dx.doi.org/10.18666/JPRA-2022-11392
Exclusionary effects of campsite allocation through reservations in U.S. national parks:
Evidence from mobile device location data
William L. Rice1,2
Jaclyn R. Rushing2
Jennifer M. Thomsen1,2
Peter Whitney1,2
1University of Montana Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management
2University of Montana Department of Society and Conservation
Funding information:
Data collection used for this publication was supported by the National Institute of
General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (P20GM130418).
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Executive Summary
Campsites represent highly-sought-after recreational amenities in the national parks of the
United States. Equitable allocation of scarce recreational resources has long been a key
management issue in U.S. national parks, but has become increasingly difficult in an era of
increasing demand. At present, a growing number of national park campsites are allocated
through an online reservation system well-in-advance of a camper’s arrival at a park.
Compounding the challenge of allocating these campsites is a long history of exclusivity within
national park campinginstitutionalized through campground design and predicated on a legacy
of the leisure class’s affinity for camping in national parks. Given national park camping’s
history of exclusivity, this exploratory study seeks to explore how online reservation systems
may impact the demographics of national park campers. Using mobile device location data,
estimated demographics were calculated for campers in five national park campgrounds in the
U.S. that each contained some sites requiring reservations and some sites available on a first
come, first served basis. We detail results from analyses of variance between campsites requiring
reservations and those that are available on a first come, first served basis. Results suggest that
for each of the five campgrounds, those campers camping in sites that require reservations came
from areas with higher median household incomes, on average. In three of the five campgrounds,
this difference was significant. Additionally, in an urban-proximate setting, those camping in
sites requiring reservations came from areas with a higher portion of White residency than those
campers in campsites not requiring reservations, on average. We conclude with discussion that
includes management implications concerning the growing prominence of online reservation
systems for outdoor recreation amenities, and a brief research agenda for diversity, equity, and
inclusion (DEI) as they relate to campgrounds. Principally, the former group of implications
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 3
includes the realization that online reservation systems present the unintended consequence of
excluding low-income, and perhaps non-White, would-be campersa conclusion drawn from
the results of this exploratory study. This discussion includes an analysis of the distributive
justice of online reservation systems.
Keywords: campgrounds, equity, allocation, reservations, exclusion, mobile device data
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Exclusionary effects of campsite allocation through reservations in U.S. national parks:
Evidence from mobile device location data
The national parks of the United States are great source of national pride and identity for
many Americans; some have even likened U.S. national parks to “American covenants
(Soukoup & Machlis, 2021, p. 585). Despite this, U.S. national parks do not serve all Americans
equally. Compared to U.S. residents in the 2010 census, national park visitors are wealthier (i.e.,
6% earn less than $25,000 compared to 24% of U.S. residents), more educated (i.e., 32% have a
graduate degree compared 16% of U.S. residents), and vast majority white (i.e., 95% compared
to 72% of U.S. residents) (Vaske & Lyon, 2014). Demographics of national park visitors
compared to the U.S. population have changed since 2010; for instance, it is now estimated that
80% of visitors are White (Hicks et al., 2021), however visitor demographics remain glaringly
unrepresentative of the U.S. population.
In an effort to make U.S. national parks relevant, diverse, and inclusive (NPS, 2021), the
National Park Service (NPS) needs to ask itself some difficult questions regarding privilege such
as “what agency practices reinforce inequities?(Roberts, 2021, p. 443). Camping in national
parks is one practice that historically reinforced inequities (Young, 2009). Yet, there is very
limited contemporary research examining the demographics of campers in national parks and
how they compare to the U.S. population. This research examines the use of online-based
reservations systems in frontcountry camping in U.S. national park campgrounds, and explores
how researchers can use mobile device data as a means to understand who protected areas, such
as national parks, serve and how fairly that service is distributed.
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Camping in the United States and National Parks
Camping is defined by the NPS as “erecting of a tent or shelter of natural or synthetic
material, preparing a sleeping bag or other bedding material for use, parking of a motor vehicle,
motor home or trailer, or mooring of a vessel for the apparent purpose of overnight occupancy
(Parks, Forests, and Public Property, 2020). Most camping in national parks is considered
frontcountry camping, “where visitors drive to an established campground… that typically
consists of camping loops (roads shaped in an actual loop), and each loop has numerous camping
sites established to accommodate tents, and in some cases, towed campers and RVs [recreational
vehicles](NPS, 2018a, para. 1).
Since the late 19th century, camping has been a primary means of outdoor recreation in
the U.S. (Young, 2017). Though originally conceptualized as a means of leisure to escape urban
stresses in an increasingly industrialized society, the primary motivations for camping soon
expanded to include affordable and/or novel accommodations while traveling or vacationing in
or proximate to—parks and protected areas (Newcombe, 2016; Young, 2021). Camping thus
became a means to tourism for many residents in the United States (i.e., a place to stay), as
opposed to a means of leisure or recreation (i.e., a way to experience leisure) (Young, 2021). This
shift led to two concurrent trends in modern camping: 1) a counter effort by the leisure class to
reappropriate camping as a leisure activity utilized largely by the wealthy (Young, 2021) and 2)
the significant long-term growth within the camping industry (Young, 2021). Both trends, and
their historical impacts, are experienced by campers today (Hogue, 2011; Young, 2021).
Historically, exclusivity in camping is noted in national parks, where post-World War II
campground designs offered a “striking visual foreshadowing of a suburban housing
developmentthat included “evocative street names, curvilinear road system[s], [and] more
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 6
clearly demarcated site boundaries(Young, 2021, p. 189) that emulated suburban hedges and
fences. Through designing campgrounds that mirrored White spaces and emphasized ownership
through reservations, Young (2021) concludes that the NPS drew strong connections between
campsite design and homeownership and therefore contributed to a post-war social contract that
disenfranchised less affluent and non-White Americans—in camping and more broadly—“as
both homeownership and outdoor recreation continued to contain mechanisms of discrimination
(p. 191). Today, campers remain largely white in the U.S. (78 percent; The Outdoor Foundation,
2017) and relatively wealthy—from 2014 to 2016 U.S. national park campers had an annual
median household income $4,000 higher, on average, than the larger U.S. population (Walls et
al., 2018). Because of these demographic discrepancies, U.S. national parks and other camping
areas are often conceptualized as exclusionary spaces (Finney, 2010, 2014; More, 2002; Scott &
Lee, 2018; Weber & Sultana, 2012).
Camping now generates $166 billion in economic activity annually within the U.S. (The
Outdoor Industry Association, 2017). Demand for campsites within frontcountry campgrounds in
U.S. national parks increased significantly during the previous decade (Rice et al., 2019),
accelerating at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (Ma et al., 2021; Michelson, 2021).
Increasing demand has led many national park campsite administrators to move to online
reservation systems, primarily Recreation.gov (Michelson, 2021; Rice et al., 2019). This online
reservation platform allows users to search for campsites by location using advanced filtering
tools and book them up to six months in advance. Online reservation systems such as
Recreation.gov allow for improved trip planning for campers and efficient allocation of
campsites for managers. However, high demand for some campsites, paired with the ability for
users to book remotely, has led to a market for campsites where supply regularly fails to meet
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demand. As reported by the administrators of Recreation.gov (2021), “A popular campground
with 57 campsites can see close to 19,000 people all trying to reserve the same campsites for the
same dates immediately after they’re released for reservation” (para. 8). Due to the incredibly
high demand for campsite reservations, obtaining a campsite ahead of time is likewise very
competitive and requires the ability to plan up to six months in advance, access to highspeed
internet, and institutional knowledge related to the park and Recreation.gov. Thus, issues of
equity have been raised concerning the allocation of U.S. national park campsite reservations
(Rice & Park, 2021).
Unintended Impacts of Campsite Reservation Systems on Distributive Justice
In U.S. national parks, extremely high demand for a limited number of campsites has led
to concerns about the impacts of reservation systems on distributive justice (Rice & Park, 2021).
In the context of recreation and tourism, Park et al. (2007) define distributive justice as being
“concerned with a gain to loss ratio, or the exchange of compensation in terms of input-output
consistence with social position(p. 90). More directly, Manning and Lime (2000) define it as a
management principle “whereby individuals obtain what they ‘ought’ to have based on criteria of
fairness(p. 38). Because fairness is a multidimensional concept, Shelby et al. (1989)
recommend the analysis of four—sometimes competing—tenets when making decisions about
the allocation for recreation resources (e.g., campsites): equality, equity, need, and efficiency.
With these tenets in mind, Shelby et al. (1989) note that reservation systems seek to maximize
equality—assuming “everyone has an equal chance to plan ahead(p. 63)—while generally
failing to adequately address goals related to need (e.g., improving or ensuring access to shaded
campsites for individuals with low heat tolerance or underlying medical conditions), equity (e.g.,
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improving or ensuring access for locals with limited financial resources for travelling elsewhere),
or efficiency (e.g., “no showreservation holders causing underutilization of the campsites).
Although reservation systems are based on equality, obtaining campsites through online
systems like Recreation.gov may be associated with various constraining factors that could cater
to higher socio-economic groups (Floyd & Stodolska, 2014; Taylor et al., 2011), which are often
White (Bowser, 2007; Stodolska & Shinew, 2014; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011).
Reserving a national park campsite online requires (a) institutional knowledge (including
campground knowledge and website navigation knowledge), (b) ability to plan up to six months
in advance, and (c) ability to access the internet for reservation system websites, all of which
have been identified as constraints for participation in various forms of outdoor recreation.
Skills such as effectively navigating competitive online reservation systems require
experience and/or mentorship which have cultural ties and equity implications. Previous research
has identified the exclusionary nature of parks and outdoor recreation activities coupled with
socio-economic factors (i.e., place of residence and poverty) have created an environment in
which many ethnic and racial groups have less access to institutional knowledge and skills
related to outdoor recreation (e.g., Bixler et al., 2011; Edmonds, 2019; Scott & Lee, 2018). In the
context of camping, campers with previous experience and greater expertise pay significantly
more attention to the availability of locations when selecting a campsite (Gursoy & Chen, 2012).
Therefore, successfully reserving a popular campsite often requires a reasonably high level of
institutional knowledge—thus leading to the possibility of exclusion of less experienced or
knowledgeable campers (Rice & Park, 2021).
Previous research refutes the assumption that all campers have equal ability to plan
ahead. Early research of campsite reservation systems in 1973 found that only 34 percent of
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campers in California had jobs that allowed them to plan their trips twelve weeks in advance
(Magill, 1976). A more recent study on online reservations found that for most national park
campsites, 50% of reservations are made more than one week in advance (Supak et al., 2017).
Furthering this issue of exclusion, at least two proprietary services have emerged to alert
customers—for a fee—when a campsite becomes available for their preferred time and place
(Michelson, 2021), thus potentially giving those able to pay an unfair advantage when attempting
to reserve campsites.
Campsite reservations are most commonly made online through sites such as
Recreation.gov, which brings up potential issues of equity in terms of access to internet. Despite
the pervasive role of the internet and smartdevices in today’s culture, access to internet devices
(e.g., smartdevices, tablets, and desktop or laptop computers) vary among racial groups and are
associated with disadvantages (Atske & Perrin, 2021; Winter et al., 2019). Atske and Perrin at
the Pew Research Center (2021) found that Black/African American and LatinX adults in the
U.S. “remain less likely than White adults to say they own a traditional computer or have high-
speed internet at home” (para. 1). Especially in a highly competitive market, such as that for
popular campgrounds, internet access and access to high speeds can be crucial for ensuring a
successful reservation.
Thus, there is a need to understand if online campsite reservation systems are
exclusionary toward specific groups. Demographic research of campers confirms that the group
remains mostly White and skews wealthier than the greater U.S. population (The Outdoor
Foundation, 2017; Walls et al., 2018). However, differences in the ethnic diversity and level of
wealth among campers utilizing campsites that require reservations and those utilizing first
come, first served campsites have not been assessed to date. This gap in the research may be due
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to the difficulty of gaining a robust sample of the two types of campers across multiple
campgrounds. The advent of gaining basic demographic information about campershome
locales through mobile device location data offers a means of overcoming this potential barrier
(Lawson, 2021).
Using Mobile Device Data to Estimate Demographics in Parks
Location data gathered from personal mobile devices is an emerging means of monitoring
and measuring tourism and visitor use in parks and protected areas (Lawson, 2021). In recent
years, a small—albeit rapidly growing—body of research has emerged to this end (e.g., Creany
et al., 2021; Kim et al., 2020; Kubo et al., 2020; Liang et al., 2021; Merrill et al., 2020; Monz et
al., 2019; 2021). Mobile device data provides a potentially more cost-effective means of
measuring managerially important variables in park spaces (i.e., visitor travel and use patterns,
activity styles, and demographics) compared to traditional surveying methods (Monz et al.,
2021). This data may be purchased or otherwise obtained from an array of vendors (e.g.,
AirSage, Near, SafeGraph, and Streetlight) that aggregate and anonymize location data from cell
phones with GPS capabilities (Lawson, 2021). These vendors gather data from “a sample of
about 30% of U.S. cell phone users(Lawson, 2021, p. 30). Given this large sample size,
reputable vendors can provide estimates for visitor use and visitor demographics with very high
levels of confidence. Concerning income, Near (formally UberMedia, or UM)—the mobile
location data vendor used in the following analysis—reports that “the Pearson’s correlation
between the (inferred) number of UM device users per income bracket and the number of census
respondents per income bracket is r = 0.994, which is both very high and highly significant
(p<0.01)(UberMedia, 2021b, p. 4). Further, concerning ethnicity, “the Pearson’s correlation
between population counts and device counts across ethnicity is 0.999, which is both very high
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and highly significant (p < 0.01)” (UberMedia, 2021b, p. 4). Lawson (2021) notes that in parks
and protected areas these estimates are likely most accurate in more densely used areas.
Additionally, given that mobile location data vendors typically retain archival mobile device
location data, researchers are able to use this accurate archival data to study previous park
visitation and trends analysis—a practice usually not possible in traditional survey research
(Monz et al., 2019).
To date, two studies have used aggregated mobile device data to estimate demographics
of park visitors (Liang et al., 2021; Monz et al., 2021). Both of these previous studies focused on
assessing and validating the representativeness of visitor demographics estimates based on data
purchased or provided by mobile location data vendors. When comparing demographic estimates
between mobile device data provided by the vendor StreetLight and survey data, Monz et al.
(2021) found visitor race/ethnicity distributions and income levels estimated via mobile device
data “were, for the most part, consistent(p. 128) with previous survey-based research. When
comparing demographic estimates between mobile device data provided by the vendor
SafeGraph and survey data, Liang et al. (2021) found significant differences in the estimated
proportional distributions of four of seven income groups and significant differences among the
estimated proportional distributions of one of three racial/ethnic groups. However, these
significant differences between the SafeGraph and survey data may be due to poor cell phone
service coverage in their study location—Yellowstone National Park (NPS, 2020b). In addition
to these studies specific to park settings, numerous other studies have utilized mobile device data
to estimate visitor home locations (also referred to as the common evening locations of their
mobile devices) in tourism (Calabrese et al., 2010; Ma & Kirilenko, 2021; Park & Pan, 2018).
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Study Purpose
Given the legacy of ethnic and economic exclusion in camping, the issues of distributive
justice inherent to reservation systems, and the growing popularity of online reservation systems
in U.S. national park campgrounds, this study seeks to quantify potential demographic
differences of campers in campsites requiring reservations and those note requiring reservations.
At present, the lack of research to this end leaves national park campground managers without
vital data to guide their decision-making when considering the implementation of online
reservation systems. U.S. national park campgrounds were selected as the research setting due to
availability of data concerning their reservation statuses and the noted high demand for their
campsites (Rice et al., 2019). This research represents a first, exploratory attempt to examine
demographic differences among reservation-holding and first come, first served campers, and
provide subsequent management implications. The following two research questions guide this
research:
R1: In the selected NPS-managed campgrounds, do U.S. campers in campsites requiring
reservations come from locales with higher median annual household incomes than those
in campsites not accepting reservations?
R2: In the selected NPS-managed campgrounds, do U.S. campers in campsites requiring
reservations come from locales with higher portions of White residency than those in
campsites not accepting reservations?
Methods
Study Site
Study sites were selected using the following criteria: a) NPS-managed campground with
at least one campground loop requiring reservations in 2019 and at least one loop not accepting
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reservations in 2019 and b) having mobile device LTE data coverage provided by at least three
major cell phone service providers (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) according to Federal
Communication Commission (FCC) 2018 data (FCC, 2020). Using the NPS “Find a
Campgroundexplorer tool (NPS, 2020a), five campgrounds were identified that met the defined
criteria: Buckhorn Campground in Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma), Green
River Campground in Colorado National Monument (Colorado), Loft Mountain Campground in
Shenandoah National Park (Virginia), Oak Ridge Campground in Prince William Forest Park
(Virginia), and Saddlehorn Campground in Dinosaur National Monument (Utah; see Figure 1).
Given the exploratory nature of this research, it is acknowledged that these sites may not be fully
representative of U.S. national park campgrounds, however all five campgrounds follow the
traditional NPS design (Young, 2018) comprising a series of one-way driving loops branching
from a common drive, each loop containing a number of campsites. Additionally, all five
campgrounds require reservations in certain loops via Recreation.gov during “peak season
(generally April through October). Importantly, neither price nor access to amenities (e.g., picnic
tables, campfire rings, access to electricity) were dependent on reservation status in these
campgrounds, as discovered through a review of NPS.gov (e.g., NPS, 2017; 2018b; 2019a;
2019b; 2019c). In Buckhorn (Chickasaw National Recreation Area) and Loft Mountain
(Shenandoah National Park) Campgrounds, price was directly correlated with access to
electricity; however, sites with and without electricity (and therefore at higher and lower prices)
were available via both reservation and first come, first served status (NPS, 2017; 2019a).
Electricity access was not available at any of the sites in Green River (Dinosaur National
Monument), Oak Ridge (Prince William Forest Park), and Saddlehorn (Colorado National
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Monument) Campgrounds; therefore, all campsites were of equal price (NPS, 2018b; 2019b;
2019c). A full listing of campground attributes is contained in Table 1.
Data Collection
Using ArcGis Pro and referencing official NPS maps, polygons were delineated around
each of the loops within each campground. Using these polygons, data were then exported from
aggregated mobile device location data provided by Near (formally UberMedia), for only U.S.-
based mobile devices. Location data provided by Near is captured by applications (apps) in
mobile devices that have location services enabled, which report coordinates from the operating
system of individual GPS-enabled mobile device (Near, 2021a). Raw data is then aggregated,
screened for accuracy and quality, and organized to the study’s requested parameters in a data
export.
Data is gathered by proprietary Software Development Kits (SDKs) embedded into
device applications (Near, 2021a). SDKs, provided by Near or other location-gathering vendors,
are embedded into the operating software of mobile-device applications by app and web
developers. From pop-up ads to apps like Pokémon Go, raw data from over 100,000 applications
contribute to the location dataset (Near, 2021a). The Near dataset used for this study included
four data sources; ~50% of data was ‘second-partydata (gathered by other location-data
providers and shared with Near), ~48% of data was ‘bid stream data(collected through software
embedded into banner and video advertisements), ~1% of the aggregated data was provided by
‘first-partyapps (those developed with publishers that have a direct relationship with Near), and
~1% gathered through apps created by Near (UberMedia, 2021c). Given the volume and
variability inherent to mobile device location data, Near applies several layers of data screening
to its long-term dataset. Basic screening removes faulty data reporting from individual devices,
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‘power lawscreening removes implausibly high levels of device requests or device density,
fraudulent data created by ‘bad actordevices is removed. Additional levels of screening include
audit-based data testing and other report-based screening methods (Near 2021a).
Data were exported for the entire 2019 “peak seasondefined for each campground when
reservations are required for certain loops (as defined by the NPS, 2017; 2018b; 2019a; 2019b;
2019c). Further, to reduce the impact of individuals and vehicles passing through the
campground loops en route to another loop or exploring the campground, location data were only
exported from 20:00 to 5:00 local time and any devices traveling at a speed greater than three
miles per hour for their entire duration within a loop were excluded. The subsequent mobile
location data exports were comprised of spreadsheets—respective to each campground loop—
listing U.S. Census block groups containing the “common evening location” of at least one
visitor’s mobile device and the number of visitor mobile devices falling within each block group
(See Figure 2). As defined by Near, common evening location is “estimated by determining
where a device most frequently appears during the ‘non-workhours(UberMedia, 2021a, p. 2).
“Non-work hoursare defined as between 18:00 and 08:00 on Mondays through Fridays and all
day on Saturdays and Sundays (UberMedia, 2021a). The defined common evening location is
then “jittered in 50 m [meters] a random directionto “help maintain the de-identification of
device-level data(UberMedia, 2021a). The exported spreadsheets also contained demographic
information for each U.S. Census block group containing the common evening location of at
least one visitor’s mobile device. This demographic information was queried from the U.S.
Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey (UberMedia, 2021b).
As mobile device location data is derived from an opt-in anonymous identifier,
demographic data cannot be directly associated with individual device locations. Instead, the
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 16
established proxy for determining usersdemographic characteristics is the census block group of
the device user’s common evening location (UberMedia, 2021b). In the study data, U.S.-based
devices with established common evening locations were associated to their census block
group’s median household income and racial distribution. For both of these measures,
demographic representativeness is measured by reporting the Pearson’s correlation between the
inferred number of device users and the number of census correspondents. Each measure is
found to be both very high and highly significant (p>0.01) (UberMedia, 2021b, p. 5)
Assessment of Mobile Device Location Data Representativeness
To understand if the common evening locations of campers—derived from the mobile
device location data—in each campground sufficiently represented the geographic distribution of
home locations among the population of campers in each campground, we compared (a) the zip
codes of camperscommon evening locations among our data—derived through Near mobile
device location data—to (b) the zip codes collected by the NPS—through the reservation website
Recreation.gov—for campers making reservations in the study’s campgrounds for the same 2019
dates listed in Table 1. All reservations made through Recreation.gov are archived on the
publicly-available Recreation Information Database (Supak et al., 2017). Importantly, we only
used the common evening locations of campers in campground loops requiring reservations in
this analysis—to ensure we were comparing the correct datasets (i.e., excluding campers
camping in first come, first served campsites, not available for reservation on Recreation.gov).
Using zip code centroid point data of both (a) the common evening location zip codes of campers
in our mobile device location dataset and (b) the zip codes recorded from all reservation
transactions on Recreation.gov, we assessed spatial correlation among the point densities of both
datasets across the United States using the band collection statistics tool in ArcGIS Pro (e.g.,
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Ghalambordezfooli & Hosseini, 2019; Sajid Mehmood et al., 2021) which outputs a correlation
matrix for determining the degree of correlation between the spatial coverages of the two
datasets.
Analysis
Differences in demographics in campground loops requiring reservations and those not
accepting reservations (first come, first served) were analyzed via aggregated datasets for each
campground—for example, common evening locations of campers in Loft Mountain
(Shenandoah National Park) Campground’s Loops F, G, and Upper north (requiring a
reservation) and Loops A, B, C, D, E, Lower, and Upper south (not accepting reservations) were
aggregated, respectively, prior to analysis. Following the defined research questions, the median
annual household income and portion of White residency were analyzed for the home locales
(U.S. Census block groups) for campers in campground loops requiring reservations and
campground loops not accepting reservations. One-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were
carried out to compare differences in the average median annual household income and portion
of White residency for campground loops requiring and not accepting reservations (first-come,
first-serve). Averages and portions were weighted according to the number of devices within
common evening locations coming from within each block group. ANOVAs are useful in
determining differences in the averages (or means) for continuous variables across groups
(Vaske, 2008). Following Huberty and Morris (1989), two one-way ANOVAs were selected over
a single MANOVA due to the small number of dependent variables (median annual household
income and portion of white residency) and the exploratory nature of the study. Levene’s F test
was used to assess if equality of variance could be assumed for each dependent variable (Vaske,
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 18
2008). When equality of variance could not be assumed for the dependent variable, Welch’s test
of Equality of Means was used to correct the significance level of the omnibus test.
Results
Common evening locations from approximately 3,250 mobile devices, representing
campers home locales, were exported from the Near data explorer. The spatial distribution of
common evening location zip codes derived from the mobile device location data and the zip
codes derived from reservations made through Recreation.gov ranged from highly correlated to
nearly identical across the five campgrounds in the study (see Table 2), with negligible
differences likely resulting from campers hailing from different home locales than their friends
or family members who made the campsite reservation. Thus, based on these universally high
levels of correlation, we determined that the mobile device location data presented a reliable
sample of campers from which conclusions concerning the demographics of their home locales
(i.e., census block groups) could be drawn. Descriptive and ANOVA results are listed in Table 2.
Differences in the total samples (number of mobile devices) used for each of the two ANOVAs
(median annual household income and portion of white residency) within each campground
result from unequal availability of census data for block groups (e.g., 591 census block groups
which contained common evening locations for Green River Campground campers had available
racial residency data vs. 581 census block groups had available median household income data).
In all five campgrounds, the mean median annual household income for camper’s home locales
was higher in loops requiring reservations than those not accepting reservations. For three of the
five campgrounds—Buckhorn (Chickasaw National Recreation Area), Green River (Dinosaur
National Monument), and Loft Mountain (Shenandoah National Park) Campgrounds—the
average (mean) median annual household income was significantly higher in loops requiring
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 19
reservations at a minimum 95% confidence interval. Concerning the portion of white residency
in campershome locales, one of five campgrounds—Oak Ridge (Prince William Forest Park)
Campground—contained a significant difference between loops requiring reservations and those
not accepting reservations. Oak Ridge (Prince William Forest Park) Campground contained a
difference of 6.86% in the portion of White residency between reservation statuses.
Discussion
Institutional Barriers to Campsite Use in NPS
Based on our findings from this exploratory research, the allocation of national park
campsites through reservation systems can prove exclusionary toward lower income and non-
White individuals in the United States. This suggests that reservation systems act as institutional
barriers to campsite use in U.S. national parks. This finding juxtaposes the democratic nature of
the national park idea as described by journalist and early national park advocate Robert Sterling
Yard (1922):
Already the national parks are beneficently affecting the national mind…Of great
importance is their strong tendency to redemocratize in a period which needs it. Nowhere
else do people from all the states mingle in quite the same spirit as they do in their
national parks…Here the social differences so insisted on at home just don’t exist. (p.
583)
Yet, national parks were historically managed as White spaces— largely off limit to people of
color. This is exemplified through the policies discouraging African American visitation
(O’Brien & Wairimu Ngaruiya, 2012), the exclusion of African Americans from parks in the
South (Byrne & Wolch, 2009; Scott, 2014), and designing parks—and the campgrounds
therein— for the preferences of White visitors (Le, 2012; Young, 2021). Krymkowski and
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 20
colleagues (2014) hypothesize that these historical policies may have resulted in people of color,
especially African Americans, feeling like national parks do not belong to them.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (Davis, 2019; Erickson et al., 2009; Scott
& Lee, 2018; Weber & Sultana, 2012; Young, 2017), national parks are still largely romanticized
for their role in American culture (Grebowicz, 2015), as popularized through Ken Burns’ (2009)
film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea:
At the heart of the park idea is the notion that by virtue of being an American, whether
your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or whether they just arrived, whether you’re
from a big city or from a rural setting, whether your daddy owns the factory or your
mother is a maid….they [the national parks] belong to you. (00:6:20)
In reality, as seen through this addition to a growing body of research, national parks are
exclusive places where public ownership does not guarantee equitable access for the diverse
public. Further, as demand increases for limited amenities (e.g., campsites, trails, parking) and
reservation systems are implemented to manage supply, this exclusion is only likely to increase.
Though this study revealed campsites requiring reservations to have significantly higher portions
of White residency in just one of five campgrounds, significantly higher average median annual
household incomes was revealed among campsites in three of the five campgrounds.
In an instance, as reported by Recreation.gov (2021), “A popular campground with 57
campsites can see close to 19,000 people all trying to reserve the same campsites for the same
dates immediately after they’re released for reservation(para. 8), only 0.3% of would-be
campers are able to negotiate the constraints involved with getting a campsite through the highly
competitive online reservation system. Constraints for obtaining a NPS campsite reservation and
for visiting a national park are manifold and span intrapersonal (e.g., fear, anxiety, perceived
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 21
self-skills), interpersonal (e.g., family obligations, cultural expectations), and structural
constraints (e.g., access to highspeed internet, ability to plan in advance). Some of the potential
constraints for obtaining an advanced reservation through Recreation.gov include: the ability to
take a vacation to a national park, access to camping equipment, ability to plan up to six months
in advance, internet access for obtaining a reservation, flexibility of work schedules to make
reservations when they come available, the ability to pay for an external service for monitoring
campsite availabilities (e.g., Campnab), and the institutional knowledge of when and how to
obtain a reservation through Recreation.gov.
There have been substantial efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in
the NPS, and in recreation and tourism more broadly (Thakur et al., 2021). For example, Schultz
et al. (2019) found a total of 1,359 relevancy, diversity, and inclusion programs were reported
across 161 park units from 2005-2016 with 12% of programs focused on ethnicity, 12% on race,
and 10% on economic status. However, our research illuminates the ongoing constraints within
the NPS and, in particular, campsite reservation systems that may further exacerbate inequities
across socio-economic groups. Similarly, Schultz et al. (2019) concluded their review of NPS
DEI programs by emphasizing the disparity in representing different forms of diversity, the need
to strengthen relationships between the NPS and external partners in communities, and the
importance of sustaining programs over time to achieve DEI outcomes.
Research Priorities for Campgrounds and DEI
Despite the growing body of research on DEI and public lands and outdoor recreation
(e.g., Winter at al., 2020; Flores et al., 2018; Lee et al., 2020), there remains major gaps specific
to frontcountry camping, particularly in NPS settings, that can inform priorities for future
research. Frontcountry camping is the fifth most popular outdoor recreation activity among all
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 22
U.S. residents, is among the top four most popular outdoor recreation activities among African
American, Asian, and Hispanic U.S. residents, has the second highest level of interest among
low-income U.S. residents not yet participating in outdoor recreation, and is the third most
popular outdoor recreation activity among U.S. residents ages 6 to 17 years old (Outdoor
Foundation, 2020). Yet, this activity appears to receive very little research interest (beyond the
annual KOA North American Camping Report), compared to other activities (e.g., hiking—
which is less popular among African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics and U.S. residents ages 6
to 17; Outdoor Foundation, 2020). The lack of research in this area stands at odds with its
growing interest among an increasingly diverse U.S. population.
Additionally, this research addresses permitting and reservation equity, which has
received little attention in the literature. We were only able to find one study to this end—from
decades ago (i.e., Magill, 1976)—and NPS reservation systems and the constraints people face
have changed in many ways since then. We recommend future research to focus on the different
types of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and structural constraints, different types of campground
reservation systems (e.g. in-person, online, etc.) and different types of campgrounds (e.g.
frontcountry, backcountry, RV, etc.). Several of the campgrounds studied here have transitioned a
significant portion of their first come, first served sites to reservation-only since 2019 (i.e., Loft
Mountain and Saddlehorn) or are now completely reservation-only (i.e., Oak Ridge)—thus,
highlighting the importance of this line of research. Additionally, a large focus of previous
research has been on people who were able to obtain a permit or get a campsite versus the people
who were unsuccessful (e.g. those not successful in securing a campground are not present for
surveying). When studying constraints of online reservation systems, it is particularly important
to have a representative sample. Social media, mobile device data, and surveys outside NPS sites
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 23
(e.g., Liang et al., 2020; Barros et al., 2020; McCreary et al., 2020) can be particularly important
to reaching populations who are not successful in getting the campsites or may not have any
interest in getting the campsites due to various constraints or disconnect of these populations
with NPS sites.
Management considerations for implementing a reservation system
As seen through this exploratory study, NPS campsite allocation systems requiring
reservations favor wealthier individuals and, in the case of the urban-proximate Prince William
Forest Park, White individuals. As the agency moves more campsites onto Recreation.gov and
out of first come, first served systems, national park camping will likely become an even-more
exclusive activity. We recommend that the NPS, and other land management agencies, consider
distributive justice in their decision-making concerning campsite allocation. First, consider who
is currently using the campgrounds, how this population has changed over time in comparison
with census and local demographics changes. Additionally, think of who is not currently using
the campgrounds and visiting NPS sites and how does this population compare to the various
aspects and dimensions of diversity.
Second, consider how reservations are made for campgrounds and other permits and how
information is communicated on working with these systems to break down barriers and
constraints. Recent trailed strategies to this end—which could be used to inform how
reservations are made—include Yosemite National Park’s 2022 reservation access lottery for
campsites in the popular North Pines Campground, through which hopeful campers enter a
lottery for an equal chance to reserve a campsite during peak summer season, with the intention
of offering “a new method for reserving campsites at this high-demand location for a more
equitable experienceand addressing “perceptions of an unfair reservation process(NPS, 2022,
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 24
para. 2). Viewed through a distributive justice lens, such a program strives for equity while also
seeking to minimize unintended negative impacts toward equality and efficiency (Shelby et al.,
1989). Additionally, this research agenda must address how changes in the reservation and permit
system reflect have changed who is using the sites?
Third, when were these changes made and is equity an issue for the timing and access of
reservations? Lastly, where are the campgrounds, facilities, resources that require reservations
and permits? What is the proximity to urban areas and how many are frontcountry versus
backcountry or wilderness sites? When considering these different aspects, managers can
transition from decision-making based on specific crowding or demand metrics to decision-
making that meaningfully integrates aspects of DEI to support a more just process.
Conclusion and Limitations
This exploratory study used an innovative approach to examine the use of online-based
reservations systems in frontcountry camping in U.S. national park campgrounds, and explores
how researchers can use mobile device data as a means to understand who national park
campgrounds serve and the equitably of that service. The findings illuminate the trends in online-
based reservation systems that may exacerbate the issue of exclusion of BIPOC (Black,
Indigenous, and people of color) populations from national parks and campgrounds. Considering
the growing use of online-based reservation systems, ticketed entry, and other required permits
through online systems, this topic requires more research to inform decisions by management
and agency decisions to use these approaches.
While cellular device location data represents a powerful tool for monitoring and
measuring tourism and visitor use in parks and protected areas, there are important limitations to
the application of this data that should be considered. In computing demographic information
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 25
about individual device users in the United States, UberMedia analyses census data at the census
block group level. Data are tested for bias between census block groups, but differences within
individual blocks are not visible. Therefore, reported demographic information is based on the
census block group in which one resides, rather than the actual demographic background of the
individual. Given this limitation, bias is easier to detect and remove in areas that have “highly
typified neighborhoods, such as one with many ethnic or economic enclavesand more difficult
to detect in an area that has a “well-integrated population with few ethnic or economic enclaves
(UberMedia, 2021b). Another consideration when interpreting cellular device location data is in
the sample selection. By virtue of the method of data collection, the sample can only include
campground visitors that had a mobile device with location services activated while onsite. Other
users, those who do not have a mobile device or do not have an application with location services
activated, are not captured. Therefore, there is no way to ensure a truly random sample of
campground visitors.
The changing socio-demographic landscape of the U.S. and other countries offers
opportunities to enhance the relevancy, diversity, and inclusion in national parks and protected
areas. However, the increasing demand for visitation to these places has created a tension for
managers on how to control crowding and sustain resources while not creating exclusionary
practices such as online reservation systems and ticketed entry. The lack of research on this topic
further limits the ability to inform decisions based on sound science. We hope this exploratory
study catalyzes meaningful discussion on these management systems through the lens of
relevancy, diversity, and inclusion and can enhance the equity and access to campgrounds,
national parks, and protected areas.
EXCLUSIONARY CAMPSITE ALLOCATION 26
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Campground
Total # of
campsites
Total # of
reservable
campsites
Loops
requiring
reservation
during peak
season
Loops not
accepting
reservation
during peak
season
2019
peak
season1
Nearest Metropolitan
Statistical Area (population)
Miles to
nearest
Metropolitan
Statistical
Area
Buckhorn
134
43
C
A, B, & D
5/25 –
9/9
Oklahoma City, OK
(646,244)
78
Green River
80
34
B
A & C
5/15/ -
9/21
Salt Lake City, UT
(600,730)
141
Loft
Mountain
207
55
F, G, &
Upper north
A, B, C, D,
E, Lower, &
Upper south
5/14 –
10/27
Richmond, VA (633,765)
83
Oak Ridge
100
58
B & C
A
4/1 –
10/31
Washington-Arlington-
Alexandria, DC-VA -MD-
WV (3,249,197)
29
Saddlehorn
80
20
B
A & C
4/1 –
10/31
Salt Lake City, UT
(600,730)
203
1(NPS, 2017; 2018b; 2019a; 2019b; 2019c)
Sample Size of
Recreation.gov data and
Correlations
n (# of
devices)
Mean
Std.
Deviation
Mean
Difference
F-
value/
Welch
Statistic
p-
value
Levine
statistic
n (# of
reservations)
Correlation
with
common
evening
location
zip codes
Buckhorn (Chickasaw National
Recreation Area) Campground
1,032
0.860
Median Annual Household Income
626
$5,940
10.322
0.001a
16.227d
Requiring Reservations
285
$59,735
$25,491
No Reservations
341
$53,796
$19,700
Portion of White Residency
632
0.0023
0.025
0.875
0.076e
Requiring Reservations
288
0.7182
0.1860
No Reservations
344
0.7159
0.1922
Green River (Colorado National
Monument) Campground
1,344
0.890
Median Annual Household Income
581
$5,084
3.919
0.048c
1.24e
Requiring Reservations
302
$74,364
$32,548
No Reservations
279
$69,280
$29,066
Portion of White Residency
591
0.0108
0.450
0.503
0.738e
Requiring Reservations
307
0.7797
0.1911
No Reservations
284
0.7689
0.1988
Loft Mountain (Shenandoah
National Park) Campground
1,439
0.995
Median Annual Household Income
1289
$6,369
6.484
0.011b
11.641d
Requiring Reservations
417
$81,825
$43,863
No Reservations
872
$75,455
$37,854
Portion of White Residency
1313
-0.0106
0.677
0.411
1.057e
Requiring Reservations
426
.7266
.2138
No Reservations
887
.7372
.2218
Oak Ridge (Prince William Forest
Park) Campground
1,035
0.945
Median Annual Household Income
307
$1,991
0.163
0.687
0.003e
Requiring Reservations
187
$97,627
$43,115
No Reservations
120
$95,636
$40,570
Portion of White Residency
310
0.0686
6.142
0.014b
0.027e
Requiring Reservations
188
.6486
.2387
No Reservations
122
.5800
.2271
Saddlehorn (Dinosaur National
Monument) Campground
1,746
0.943
Median Annual Household Income
722
$3,899
2.800
0.095
1.221e
Requiring Reservations
341
$71,113
$32,367
No Reservations
381
$67,214
$30,234
Portion of White Residency
732
-0.0133
0.874
0.350
0.723e
Requiring Reservations
343
.7710
.1966
No Reservations
389
.7843
.1883
Note: Median Annual Household Income and Portion of White Residency are calculated at the U.S. Census Block Group level
aDifference in means significant at a 99% confidence interval
bDifference in means significant at a 98% confidence interval
cDifference in means significant at a 95% confidence interval
dEquality of variances cannot be assumed.
eEquality of variances can be assumed.
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