California firm wins bid to manage forest campgrounds |

California firm wins bid to manage forest campgrounds

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Most of the campgrounds in the national forest surrounding Aspen will be operated by a new management company for the first time in 12 summers next year.

A private firm called California Land Management (CLM) Services placed the winning bid to earn a five-year permit to operate the major developed campgrounds throughout the White River National Forest, said Rich Doak, recreation staff officer with the forest supervisor’s office. The permit will be renewed for an additional five years if both parties agree.

The permit applies to hundreds of campsites in the sprawling, 2.28 million-acre national forest, which stretches from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and from the Rifle area in the west to Summit County in the east.

Eric Mart, co-founder and president of CLM, said his firm manages numerous national forest campgrounds in California, Oregon and Washington as well as some in Nevada. It has Forest Service permits in notable places such as the Tahoe, Sierra and Sequoia national forests in California and the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.

CLM doesn’t currently have permits to operate in Colorado, but it placed a bid on this permit because of the potential of doing solid business in the White River National Forest, Mart said. The White River handles about 9.2 million recreational visitors annually, although the vast majority of those are customers of ski areas that use public lands.

Mart said campgrounds in the states where CLM operates tend to be more concentrated. In the White River, they are spread farther apart. That makes it tougher to do business.

“There are a couple of locations that generate a lot of revenues. Those are the key ones,” he said.

Campers will not notice major changes next summer, Mart said. CLM will maintain the camping fees that were put in place by the prior concessionaire, Thousand Trails Management Services Inc., he said.

Thousand Trails earned the permit in 2000 after the Aspen Ranger District decided to farm out operation of the campgrounds rather than maintain them itself. Thousand Trails had its permit renewed five years later, and then the permit went out for competitive bid at the end of 10 years.

Five companies placed bids in January. A panel undertook an extensive review and recommended that the permit be awarded to CLM. Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams concurred. The decision is under standard review by the regional office, and the transfer will likely occur by Jan. 1.

Thousand Trails agreed to manage the campgrounds for one year last summer even though it knew it didn’t have the long-term contract.

Not every campground is included in the permit. In the Aspen Ranger District, the campgrounds in Maroon Valley will continue to be managed by the Forest Service rather than the concessionaire. The Portal Campground at Grizzly Reservoir also is excluded from the permit.

Doak said outsourcing the operations and maintenance of the campgrounds is vital to keeping them open.

“We have almost no facility maintenance funds anymore,” he said. Federal legislation allows the concessionaires of national forest campgrounds to keep the revenues, but to earn the permits, they have to plow funds back into the facilities. Doak said the system helps keep the campgrounds well-maintained.

Without that system, the Forest Service probably couldn’t afford to keep as many campgrounds open as there are now, Doak said.

Even so, it’s not a big profit center for concessionaires.

“We are definitely not the most lucrative forest in the world,” Doak said.

CLM has been in business for 31 years, and it has held Forest Service permits since 1984, Mart said.

“We really emphasize customer service a lot. We try to please people,” he said.

CLM also has plenty of experience trying to separate its campers from black bears. Bear encounters are popping up with increasing frequency in some Aspen-area campgrounds. Tents were prohibited for a time at Difficult Campground in August and September because of the presence of bears.

The key to reducing problems, Mart said, is educating campers about not exposing food. Providing bear-proof food lockers is also essential, he said.