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Eugene Weekly : News : 1.4.07

Campground Closures

New Forest Service plan aims to cut costs, privatize recreation sites

BY NICOLE FANCHER

When President Teddy Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1905, the agency symbolized a dedication to natural conservation and high quality outdoor recreation. Visitors could expect simple, clean campsites with water, chopped wood and even campfire nature talks hosted by friendly Forest Service rangers. Profit was never part of the mission.

Willamette National Forest. Photo by Kera Abraham.

Today, the agency faces a federal administration bent on privatizing public services, including national forests. Though the USFS is mired in overall budget cuts, the shift in allocations within the budget speak to the agency's changing priorities. Almost half of the USFS's 2006 funds went to fire suppression — compared to about a quarter 10 years ago — while the share to recreation continues to see cuts.

To address its stymied budget and a $346 million backlog of decades-overdue maintenance, the Forest Service is implementing "recreation-site facility master planning," which will rank every rec site in the national forests based on criteria such as maintenance costs, accessibility and visitor usage. As a result, the USFS may close hundreds of campsites, trailheads and other recreational services throughout the National Forest System.

Locally, the Willamette National Forest is proposing to close or decommission 10 of about 200 campsites: Alder Springs, Hard Rock, Homestead, Red Diamond, Campers Flat, Cline Clark Picnic Area, Indigo Lake Hike-In, Johnny Creek Trailhead, Shady Dell and Winberry. Willamette spokesperson Judy McHugh says that some of these sites are on the chopping block because they are out of the way, little used and don't generate enough revenue to cover their maintenance costs.

But Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said the light user traffic is exactly why remote sites are valuable. Stahl said that for decades, "these campgrounds didn't make any money, and that was fine."

But how much money will the 10 campsite closures really save? Recreation staff officer Rodney Stewart said the actual operating costs of a given campsite "cover a broad range" — anywhere from $100 to $25,000 — but remote sites are harder to get to and more expensive to maintain. In addition to closing some sites, the USFS may discontinue amenities such as old water systems or costly garbage services and may shorten the camping season, he added.

Willamette's recreation budget for 2006 is almost $1 million. With another quarter million in fee collections, funds total $1.2 million — not enough to cover the $2.1 million in overdue maintenance, forest spokesperson McHugh said.

Yet some critics blame not a tight budget for agency failings but fiscal mismanagement and backroom deal-making. In its Aug. 29 report, the Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (WSNFC) criticized the Forest Service's rec-site plan, saying it "threatens to impose a for-profit model on the management of America's National Forests."

That seems to be true at Willamette, where Hoodoo Recreation Services operates about one third of the campsites. According to Stewart, Hoodoo and other concessionaires benefit the forest by providing an "official presence," shouldering maintenance costs and training more recreation staff than the USFS can. Private companies can pay workers minimum wage, while the Forest Service must pay higher wages plus benefits to do the same job. Stewart added that Willamette has partnered with private companies for more than 10 years, enabling many sites to remain open that might otherwise close.

Private companies also charge their own rec-use fees, which generate revenue and help force out misbehaving campers, according to Stewart. Last year, after Hoodoo imposed a $5 fee at Terwilliger Hot Springs and posted a uniformed patrol, the site's drug-related troubles decreased dramatically, Stewart said. He dubs the privatization of Terwilliger's management "a big success story."

But critics such as WSNFC say that the bottom-line nature of private operations devalues public forests by commercializing larger campsites and leaving small, less profitable sites behind.

Nonetheless, it appears that privatization of public lands is fast becoming the norm. On one hand, the trend of aging baby boomers moving toward comfort camping seems to support private companies' interest in creating full-service campgrounds, complete with RV hook-ups and showers.

But are private companies gaining undue decision-making power about how sites are used? Stewart conceded that Hoodoo "always has ideas for new sites" and would rather let go of unprofitable sites. While Stewart said that Willamette has not closed any sites at Hoodoo's suggestion, four of the 10 sites proposed for closure under the forest's rec-site plan are operated by Hoodoo.

Stahl and Stewart agreed that privatization will not change outdoor recreation much. Stahl calls the USFS's rec-site planning and the resulting campground closures not a new trend in privatization but "the last whimper" of the Reagan administration's privatizing revolution of the 1980s.

And Stewart reassured EW that this isn't the beginning of the end of public recreation. "We're going to have national forests in the future," he said.  

To learn more about the Forest Service's rec-site plan, visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/measures/Prioritize/RS-FMP.htm For information about Willamette's plan, go to www.fs.fed.us/r6/willamette/manage/rs-fmp/index.html or call (541) 225-6421.