Thursday, October 18, 2018
Breaking News
Home » Rockies » Oregon » Bend » Private Concessionaire: We Aren’t Trying to Take Your Land
Editor's Note: Two weeks ago I posted a hard-hitting column about recreation fees leading to privatization of our public lands and how the Forest Service facilitates the process by turning over management of so many campgrounds and other recreation areas to private concessionaires. After this commentary went online, I was contacted by Warren Meyer, who runs one of the major companies involved in private management of public recreation. He made some good points, and I asked him to write this guest commentary so you can see the other side of this issue.--Bill Schneider I know there has been a lot of concern about the role of private recreation businesses on public lands, and the relation this might have to the expansion of recreation fees. As the head of one of the larger Forest Service campground concession companies, I wanted to address some of these issues.

Private Concessionaire: We Aren’t Trying to Take Your Land

Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago I posted a hard-hitting column about recreation fees leading to privatization of our public lands and how the Forest Service facilitates the process by turning over management of so many campgrounds and other recreation areas to private concessionaires. After this commentary went online, I was contacted by Warren Meyer, who runs one of the major companies involved in private management of public recreation. He made some good points, and I asked him to write this guest commentary so you can see the other side of this issue.–Bill Schneider

I know there has been a lot of concern about the role of private recreation businesses on public lands, and the relation this might have to the expansion of recreation fees. As the head of one of the larger Forest Service campground concession companies, I wanted to address some of these issues.

When discussing the word “privatization” in the context of recreation, it’s important to understand we are talking about a partnership, not a replacement. We are not trying to take the land away from the public. We aren’t trying to pave the wilderness. We aren’t trying to build condos in front of Old Faithful. Public agencies still must establish the mission and character of their lands, and set the standards for its preservation and use.

Our company’s approach is to accept whatever recreation or preservation mission the public owner of a park sets, and then to manage the park to that mission. What we bring to the table is that we can often operate a park and keep it open less expensively than can the government. Typically, we operate with the fees paid at the gate, without big fee hikes and without the need for subsidies from taxes.

And this is the heart of the problem–that recreation costs money. Even a small roadside picnic area can require thousands of dollars a year to clean the bathrooms, haul the trash, and maintain the area to keep it safe. For decades, recreation costs in the Forest Service were funded by timber sales, but these have largely disappeared and Congress has not provided a funding source to replace them. Forest Service recreation budgets have, for years, been insufficient to cover recreation operations as well as necessary major maintenance and refurbishment of facilities.

The Forest Service, looking to stretch its meager recreation budget as far as possible, has turned to private companies to run many of its campgrounds and developed day use facilities. This partnership has largely worked well, with the Forest Service benefiting from the efficiency and customer service focus of private management while retaining tight control over operating standards (concessionaires can’t change a fee, or modify operating hours, or alter any number of other aspects of a park’s operations without the Forest Service’s written approval).

Private concessionaires play a critical role in keeping fees reasonable. Without private concessions, the Forest Service would be forced to raise fees substantially or to close hundreds of recreation areas, a story we unfortunately see being played out in many state parks organizations. For an illustration of this, we can look to my home state of Arizona, where the state parks organization is closing some campgrounds and day use areas and doubling entry fees in many of the others. Similarly, the proliferation of new use and access fees on Forest Service lands has nothing to do with private companies that actually serve to keep fees reasonable. The problem is not privatization; the problem is appropriations, or the lack thereof.

I know that the recent Forest Service proposal to reduce Golden Age discounts has been blamed on demands made by private concessionaires. In fact, the new proposal does little if anything to benefit our company.

The Forest Service presented their current fee discount proposal to concessionaires as a trade. The Forest Service wanted concessionaires to provide free or discounted use for a number of newly created passes, which, by the enabling legislation, did not clearly apply at concession-run facilities. In turn, the senior camping discount would be reduced to offset the cost of accepting these new passes. A further benefit was that camping fees to younger campers that had been rising in order to subsidize the senior discounts could be kept in check.

In our official comments, I agreed that this was financially fair for our company–that one part roughly balanced the other and that our company didn’t gain or lose financially–but that the plan did not address some of the real inequities in the fee pass program. The solution to maintaining current programs like the senior camping discount lies with the appropriations process–without new funding, any new discount or pass can only be provided at the cost of reducing an existing program or increasing fees to other visitors, and this is true irrespective of whether the Forest Service or a private concessionaire operates the parks.

My sense is that the use of “privatization” for what we do is perhaps a poor choice of words, as I think many people associate the word with a total takeover of public lands by private companies, to do with as they please. This is certainly not our goal. We want the public to retain ownership of its public lands, and to have control, through its agencies, of how these lands are used. Within this context, however, in our times of trillion dollar government budget deficits, private recreation management is a critical part of the solution to keeping public recreation sites open.

Footnote: Warren Meyer is President of Recreation Resource Management. He welcomes readers to contact him with questions of concerns either by email (Warren@camprrm.com) or by going to his blog, parkprivatization.com..

About Guest Writer

Check Also

One Big Sky Center

Hammes Company Joins One Big Sky Center Venture in Billings

Billings, Montana is moving ahead with discussions on the One Big Sky Center proposal, which ...

14 comments

  1. The more entrenched our public lands become with private managment, the harder it is going to be to pry them away. They are like weeds.

    I run several public land websites(one of them a camping site) and I can’t count how many complaints I have received from people who were mistreated by private concessionaires. The amountof crabbyness and incompetence seems to fester because of alack of accountability. It’s the wild west.

    The sooner we can get these leeches off our public lands, the better off we will be. Keep private, private and keep our public lands free.

  2. Myth: Recreation on public land is a right already paid for by the fact that the land is public. Reality: Recreational use of public land is no more of a right than mining, logging or grazing on public land. Myth: Recreational fees will lead to privatization. Reality: User fees are the fairest and most efficient way to provide the building, cleanup and maintenance cost of providing recreational services. Much fairer than a broad based tax and will not lead to selling off of public land. Myth: Seniors deserve a discount recreational pass at public campgrounds. Reality: The low income public deserves a means tested low income pass regardless of age group.

  3. You are right on the money Mickey. We ahve everything backwards including letting those who can spend huge amounts of time off to hike “wilderness” that they have shut ordinary families out of, to have a totally free ride.

  4. Todd – Most of the USFS lands are roaded and trailed for your own enjoyement. Also, there are thousands of famileis who enjoy wilderness and hike it together. Many also hunt, fish and raft the wilderness to get away from crowds.

    It’s important to remember that for years, the USFS was able to manage campgrounds. What private groups are trying to do is get their claws into every aspect of planning and management. They more theycan do so, and the longer they hang on the harder it will be to remove them from the land.

    The USFS spends and loses most of its moeny on the timber program. Millions are lost every year from building roads deep in the backcountry that don;t need to be built. This is well documented and proven fact by the CBO. By cutting back on that waste, the USFS could easily fund its recreation system. Instead, they have spread themselves too thin, and the guise of a “private partnership” has cropepd up.

    Like I said, I have received numerous compalints of private conessionaires not acepting disabiity passes or senior passes, or trying to rip off the campers. They will also be rude to them once they found out they are not paying full price. A lot of these complaints have come from the Gallatin National Forest consessionairs from Bakers Hole up to Red Cliff. The Xanterra run campgrounds in Yellowstone are a huge sour eof complaints. Funny how I never get a single complaint from USFS run campgrounds in terms of scams or rudneness. Every compalint I get is fomr private consessionaires.

  5. Think Halliburton!

  6. The Forest Service is already implementing the plan to close individual recreation sites that don’t pay their own way. They have already done extensive financial analysis of individual sites and plan to close the ones that don’t generate a profit. We have already seen some of this occurring today. Many Forest Service employees who don’t work in recreation want to let the recreation program live or die on its own, secretly hoping that it will fail miserably, resulting in a badly-needed re-organization. The FLAME Act was a step to protect non-fire budgets but, I think fire costs will continue to spiral out of control and less and less people will want to recreate in fried forests.

  7. I don’t tend to mix it up in comments sections, but I did want to address the issue of quality. There are certainly private companies who do poor work. There are also Ranger Districts who do poor work as well. And government lands managers who do a poor job of managing their private contractors/concessionaires. I am not convinced private companies do a poor job at a higher rate than does the government in running things. At the end of the day, private companies have two sources of accountability that the government does not have:

    1. If visitors hate the place and don’t show up, my financials look worse. Again, I don’t get paid any money by the government, our company only makes money if visitors think the entry or camping fee is a fair value. Given the way a lot of public agencies work (with revenue going to the general treasury but costs hitting the local budget), public agency budgets often look better if no one shows up!

    2. My contracts expire — in the USFS, they expire after 5 years. If I do a bad job, I am gone.

    The campgrounds we run are consistently ranked by visitors as among the best around. Take one site – camparizona.com. Click on their top 10 list for 2009. Campgrounds we have run for over a decade in the Forest Service are ranked #2, #4, and #5. We had three campgrounds on their 2008 list as well. Sunset magazine did a story a while ago about the 50 best campgrounds in the West. It listed only 2 in Arizona, and we ran one of them. The Juniper Springs canoe run, which we operate for the USFS, is often ranked as the best wilderness attraction in Florida.

    I encourage you to visit any of the sites we run and make up your own mind (www.camprrm.com). If you don’t think we did a good job, email me after your visit (I handle nearly every customer complaint in the company personally anyway) and I will discuss your experience and refund your money.

  8. Criticisms are valid, BUT…
    what is the answer? Teddy and Gifford didn’t do all they did just to make themselves look good, nor did Mather. We need the Forest Service, we just need them to get it right, and our government to understand WHY.
    Sour grapes on the health insurance. That’s one reason why people go into government employment. Smart. Beats selling the farm to pay ludicrous medical bills

  9. The Forest Service often feels they can teach any temp employee to do any kind of forestry work. Each temp can work 1039 hours out of each year, one hour short of the Feds having to pay benefits and make the position permanent. While natural resource projects get more and more complex, employees are becoming less and less skilled. I worked as a temp for 15 seasons before I finally got a permanent appointment.

  10. Back and forth and back and forth.

    Lack of logging in the national forests is not what causes budget shortfalls. Logging is an upredictable source of revenue; it is a global commodity that when you produce too much, (like Tester’s bill will) prices fall. When the housing market goes down, demand falls, prices fall. Just becasue you want to log off trees that might catch on fire does not mean anyone wants to buy them.

    Here’s the only solution: petetion our Congress to appropriate enough budget for these types of services. Stop whining at the USFS…they can’t create any more money by themselves.

    There is a good point to the impact study that goes on….for example, if a minig operation should be allowed in an area, but just like so many things, it has run amoke with minutia that an army of consultants who study minuta do not want stopped…

  11. No matter how you shake it, those who use the forests need to pay for that use, no matter how they use it. Everyone who uses the forests receives a benefit, and the less folks that are allowed to use it, the higher the fees need to be for those who are able to access it.

  12. “those who use the forests need to pay for that use, no matter how they use it.” Which is why timber should be sold to industry for pennies on the dollar?

  13. Wilderness backpackers do not even pay pennies.

  14. “Wilderness backpackers do not even pay pennies.” Nor do they extract anything from the wilderness.