When Environmentally Sustainable Actually Was Sustainable

Many of your know that my company operates public parks.  So I see a lot of different approaches to park design and construction.  Of late I have been observing a trend in "environmental sustainability" in park design that is actually the opposite.

The US Forest Service has built more campgrounds, by far, than any other entity in the world.  For decades, particularly in the western United States, the USFS had a very clear idea about what they wanted in a campground -- they wanted it to be well-integrated with nature, simple, and lightly developed.  They eschewed amenities like pools and playgrounds and shuffleboard.  They avoided building structures except bathroom and shower buildings.  The camp sites were simple, often unpaved with a table and fire ring and a place for a tent.  They used nature itself to make these sites beautiful, keeping the environment natural and creating buffers of trees and natural vegetation between sites.   I have never seen an irrigation system in a western USFS campground -- if it doesn't grow naturally there, it doesn't grow.

This has proven to be an eminently sustainable design.  With the exception of their underground water systems, which tend to suck, they are easy to maintain.  There is not much to go wrong.  The sites need new gravel every once in a while.  Every 5-10 years the tables and fire rings needs replacement, hardly a daunting task.  And every 20-30 years the bathrooms needs refurbishment or replacement.  The design brilliance was in the placement of the sites and their integration with the natural environment.

Over the last several months, I have been presented with plans from three different public parks agencies for parks they want to redevelop.   Each of these have been $10+ million capital projects and each one had a major goal of being "sustainable."   I have run away from all three.  Why -- because each and every one will be incredibly expensive and resource intensive to operate and of questionable popularity with the public.  Sustainability today seems to mean "over-developed with a lot of maintenance-intensive facilities".

What each of these projects has had in common are a myriad of aggressively architected buildings - not just bathrooms but community rooms and offices and interpretive centers.  These buildings have been beautiful and complex, made from expensive materials like stainless steel and fine stone.  They have also had a lot of fiddly bits, like rainwater collection and recycling systems and solar and windmills.  They have automatic plumbing valves that never seem to work right.  The grounds have all been heavily landscaped, with large lawns that require water and mowing, with non-native plants that need all kinds of care.  Rather than a traditional sand pad for tents they have elaborate wooden platforms.

The plans for these facilities are beautiful.  They win awards.  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them through awards.  But they make no sense as a recreation facility.  In 10 years, they will look like hell.  Or sooner, since one agency that is in the process of spending a $22 million bond issue on 5 campgrounds seems to not have one dollar budgeted for operation and maintenance.

These things actually win awards for sustainability, which generally means they save money on one input at the expense of increasing many others.  One design  got attention for having grass on the roofs, which perhaps saved a few cents of electricity at the cost of having to irrigate and mow the roof (not to mention the extra roof bracing to carry the load).  I briefly operated a campground that had a rainwater recovery system on the bathrooms, which required about 5 hours of labor each week to keep clean and running to save about a dollar of water costs.


  1. Jess1:

    "sustainable" is nothing more than the current buzzword, following in the footsteps of "cyber", "e-", "fusion", ad nauseum...

  2. August:

    Well, I would make a huge distinction between what sustainable means to a producer, and what sustainable means to a parasite.

  3. mlhouse:

    When you spend someone else's money and do not have to worry about the most important sustainability issue, financial, then big, multi-million dollar "interpretive centers" and facility seem like a very good idea. Everyone wants a little prestige and it is nice when other people pay for it.

  4. Nehemiah:

    See United Nations Agenda 21 for info on "sustainable development". Gee what could go wrong there?

  5. James:

    Wow. If I go camping, it's to get away from the big fancy buildings and crap that I'm surrounded with all the rest of the time. I want to hear the forest sounds, see the stars more clearly, have a beer or two while hanging out with friends and family, roast some marshmallows, try to cook up something with rudimentary equipment, etc. The "community room" and "interpretive center" is that circular area around the campfire where we're all sitting. I've never had the tent sand pad, but that does sound nice.

  6. Chris:

    It's worse as it's anti-humanity.

  7. Andrew_M_Garland:

    Maybe LEED is taking over the Forestry Service

    ( http://blog.mises.org/13812/compliance-models-equals-nonsense )
    Leed - Check Off the Box
    09/6/10 - Mises by Jim Fedako
    === ===
    LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

    The local community college opened a satellite campus five miles from my house. Its website proclaims it is built to rigorous LEED standards. It seems like every government building.

    I rode my bicycle around, seeing white signs on the sidewalk and around the building. Each sign proclaimed an environmental benefit obviously contradicted by reality. Bike racks for no riders. Small, almost leafless trees unable to "reduce energy use for air conditioning up to 70%".
    === ===


  8. mesaeconoguy:

    “The plans for these facilities are beautiful. They
    win awards. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole
    point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them
    through awards.”

    Bingo. Nailed it right there.

    The goal:

    1. Create great designs for public spaces - which they absolutely do – garnering public support, while hiding the cost, and;

    2. Use those things to override any privatization efforts, citing the success of those projects, while concealing the true cost.

    Ultimately, as someone above observed, this is about spending other people’s money, winning awards, and concealing cost in the quest to expand government power. That is all.

    It has nothing to do with environmental responsibility whatsoever.

    Because it is funded by other people’s money, and the cost isn’t known until later, it is economically erosive and destructive.

  9. mesaeconoguy:

    I've been seeing that a lot lately, and hope it's not a "9/11 truther"-type thing.

    Can you post a link?

    PS, The real UN problem to watch out for is the weapon trafficking "prohibition"

  10. skhpcola:

    Mesa, just search for "Agenda 21". I downloaded the PDF directly from the UN and it is full of filth.

  11. mesaeconoguy:

    Ok thx.


    Here’s a problem:


    “Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented
    action plan of the United Nations “

    Voluntarily implemented? Non-binding? Like carbon taxes, with zero justification?

    And another:

    "with regard to sustainable development.[1] It is a
    product of the UN Conference on
    Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio
    de Janeiro, Brazil,
    in 1992. "

    Sounds like AGW AR5.

    It’s only conspiracy theory until it’s conspiracy fact.

  12. mesaeconoguy:

    This is what happens with high-speed, sexy government


    This terrible consequence of incompetent central planning likely reduced the Spanish unemployment rate to 24.999%, from 25.

    (Poor taste, I know. Le mot juste.)

  13. skhpcola:

    It's worse than just the AGW angle. This bullshit covers zoning, transportation, population, and everything else that affects daily life. It is a roadmap to totalitarianism, and that's not hyperbole or rhetoric. Poke around the intartoobs, read the document, and put the two together. This shit is conspiracy writ on a grand scale. I'm not a black-helicopter, Troother, "false flag" guy at all...all of those are nonsense. But Agenda 21 is incrementally being implemented everywhere. Check your city/county website. These fuckers have conventions and teach each other how to subvert and subjugate the nation.

  14. mesaeconoguy:

    It’s also not “voluntary” anymore. That’s the real fuckup.

    This is de facto, if not yet de jure reasoning, and that’s the real danger. Free people are being incrementally boiled here


    These dumbfuck “greater good” shitbags are quietly winning a war which most people are too stupid or inattentive to even acknowledge.

  15. Reformed Republican:

    Time to start promoting sustainable cyberfusion.

  16. obloodyhell:

    If by that you mean a steady, determined effort to implode the brains of so-called environmentalists, I'll support it in every way I can.

  17. obloodyhell:

    Well, yes, but this is at the heart of most Greens, anyway. They tend to think of humans as the worst thing that ever happened to life on Earth.

  18. JR:

    I manage a park in California with a new "sustainable" shower and bathroom facility. It has a complicated solar heating system and sustainable sewage system. When we started having trouble with the hot water system we could not find anybody to fix it. The plumbers all said it was an electrical problem, the electricians said it was a plumbing issue, the designer said he just designed it, he could not trouble shoot and the contractor who built it said he was just following plans, he did not know how to operate or fix the system. Luckily, a camper who was an electrical engineer helped us figure out what the problem part was......so I don't think this sustainable system will last very long.

  19. LarryGross:

    not that many of the Forest Service nor the DOI Park Service parks have showers. But many state parks do and so I wonder which park proposals that Warren did not like came from.

    What most people simply do not understand is that plumbing means sewage and the Fed Govt nor State govt dump sewage down ditches... so plumbing means sewage treatment facilities -not a cheap proposition .. and to me it's one of the central issue when we talk about "sustainability".

    Many FS campgrounds have pump/haul toilets... not sewage treatment.

    so I AM curious who is sponsoring the parks because I'd be surprised if it is the Feds.

    For instance, a Mesa Verde and Crater Lake ( for example) there are concessionaire showers - unisex stalls that cost money.... and that money pays for hot water and sewage disposal...

    there are a crap load of campgrounds in the US - and by far the Park Service, BLM and FS are primitive compared to state parks and commercial campgrounds.

    so Warren's business is primarily for who?

  20. theotherguy:

    Sewage = septic, not so expensive. Though they do have parks with the 30 foot drops, which get pumped. Just got back from Kings Canyon National Park, there are some spots with showers, but we had to avail ourselves to a dip in Lake Hume to get clean.

  21. LarryGross:

    sewage costs bucks... potable water costs bucks .... compared to not....

    if you just had a place to pitch tents.. cheap... but people want "services" and that adds to the costs...

    fire rings are cheap.. toilets are not..

  22. John O.:

    The all the people involved, particularly, those come up with these ideas in government, who participate in the design competition and the people who bid on the contracts, I get the impression have never truly camped in their life. So they have KOA Kampground expections with running water, aren't far from the Interstate and merely extensions of modern life in pretend escapes from said modern life.

    Several years ago I stayed in a cabin at Letchworth State Park in Upstate New York. A wounderful place to visit because of the gorge cut by the Genessee River but the park is literally ruined by the fact that during the Great Depression everybody involved with "modernizing" the park embarked on adding "improvements" to nature. Staying in a cabin was nice, but an electric stove and modern pluming? Why!? And then stupidity of planting trees from all over the world in sections of the park. Some sections had completely died off years later because the climate and soil was incompatible for the trees they wanted to grow. And when they planted them, they were planted like a lumber plantation in rows with little or no biodiversity in the underbrush. The park is still pretty good when you go there solely for the Gorge, Waterfalls and the for the railfan, the railroad bridge that carries a train or two a day but all the nature trails that involve the trees, especially, are just sad and depressing.

  23. John Moore:

    Frankly, most modern "award winning" buildings I have seen are awful. Sure, they have lots of glitter. But beyond that, the architects do their best to be "original" - which basically means throwing out anything traditional (as in, naturally selected over centuries to be what folks want).

  24. John Moore:

    Warren, are you aware that ASU has a shining new, big sustainability center (or department, or whatever)? The good news is they aren't as hung up on reducing CO2 emissions as one might expect. But hey, a great way to get federal research grants, sigh.

  25. Morven:

    I know you're making a joke, but it's essentially no different from a plane crash. Mass transportation trades rarer incidents for bigger ones; it's no indication about whether the transportation scheme itself was a good idea. Or, indeed, what the dangers are; cars kill more people per passenger mile than trains or planes, by quite a bit.

  26. Gary Giles:

    interesting some one who is experiencing and sharing what I've been saying for a decade now. Sustainability is unsustainable financially. These things are expensive and maintenance heavy. We have one going up in our town right now that will cost a small fortune to run and maintain and all you hear is hooting and hollering about it being sustainable. I can't help but wonder what their definition of sustainable is. The most likely answer is not about the building but about the plan in the background where they are looking to move everyone into the town and out of the country so they can "limit" the sources of support and (my words here) control them. The big plan seems to be to get every one out of the country and restore the wilderness. Not sure where they are going to grow their food. Maybe on top of the buildings, that should be cost effective.