At national parks, motor homes and trailers crowd out die-hard tenters

July 02, 1995|By Timothy Egan | Timothy Egan,New York Times News Service

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- On the ragged coast of one of America's wildest, most remote national parks, Susan Lybarger poked her head out of her tent, surrounded by a forest of fiberglass.

Old-fashioned campers, she and her family had staked out two nylon domes in a dusty parking lot full of 3-ton motor homes, converted buses and 40-foot-long vehicles with names like Kountry Comfort.

In the campground of 1995, where an occasional eagle can be seen flying over satellite dishes mounted on trailer roofs, RVs rule.

Ten years ago, Ms. Lybarger came to this beach, where the view of the Pacific seems to stretch to the very curvature of the Earth, and saw only a handful of recreational vehicles. Now, she is something of a museum exhibit with her tents, air mattresses and a cook stove.

How quaint. That seems to be the sentiment of her neighbors. In two dozen interviews with RV owners in Olympic Park, every one of them laughed when asked to consider camping in a tent.

"A tent -- oh, for heaven's sake, are you kidding me?" said Redman Hulse, sitting in the shade of his 31-foot-long Airstream. "I've got a whole house with me. My wife likes to shower every day. Why would I ever go camping in a tent?"

Across the nation this Fourth of July weekend, virtually every national park campsite is taken, some of them reserved months ago. RV campers long ago won the battle; they outnumber tenters by three to one in many of the campgrounds, park rangers say.

And now they are starting to change the very nature of the parks. Here in Olympic, a million-acre preserve of rain forests, glaciers and red-chested elk, park officials are reconfiguring campgrounds to accommodate vehicles with two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen.

In Yellowstone, the owners of these homes on wheels complain that the roads in America's first national park are too small and rugged.

"It was so bad in Yellowstone we had to hold the television down to keep it from falling," said Ed Rehberg, who travels in a large bus he has converted into a bedroom, dining room and kitchen with oak cabinets and parquet floors. "It was rough."

Yellowstone is upgrading its roads, trying to match the expectations of the camper with living room in tow. But park officials are not sure they can keep up.

"I walk through the campground every night on my way home," said Marsha Karle, who works for the Park Service at Yellowstone, "and it seems like the RVs have not only taken over, but they just keep getting bigger and bigger."

There are 9 million recreational vehicles on the road, and 25 million people who call themselves RV enthusiasts, said Bill Baker of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va.

Last year, Americans spent $10.3 billion buying 441,000 of these vehicles, a 60 percent increase over the number purchased three years earlier. And the baby boomers, the oldest of whom turn 50 this year, are only now discovering house travel.

Given that they are not making national parks from scratch anymore, and that campsites are diminishing because of budget cuts, the surfeit of motor homes means campgrounds will continue to look more like parking lots.

Tent campers, though an endangered species in many parks, still have a voice.

After numerous complaints from people who prefer the sound of rustling pines to Beverly Hills 90210 reruns around the old campfire, Yellowstone has ordered that all generators be shut off after 8 p.m. Without generators, most RV campers cannot fire up their televisions.

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