Will cutting costs mean closing campgrounds? | AspenTimes.com

Will cutting costs mean closing campgrounds?

Scott Condon
Portal Campground at Grizzly Reservoir is slated for closure under a White River National Forest cost-cutting plan. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

Portal Campground southeast of Aspen is an idyllic place that oozes with a sense of outdoor adventure.It is perched alongside Grizzly Reservoir, so it invites anglers to toss in a line and try their luck for trout. The stream that feeds the man-made lake is a magnet for kids who skip stones, sail flimsy makeshift boats and build small rock dams that inevitably wash away.The seven-space campground sits in the shadow of Grizzly Peak and other high, conifer-carpeted ridges that hem in the upper Lincoln Creek Valley. Trailheads to high-altitude lakes pepper the valley floor.Portal is about eight miles from Highway 82 along a high-clearance dirt road that demands drivers’ attention every now and then. The campground is far enough away to require a concerted effort to get there, but not inaccessible enough to make it remote. In other words, for many backcountry travelers, it’s a perfect destination.

It’s hard to believe, but this beautiful place has become an unfortunate symbol of the U.S. Forest Service’s financial stresses and strains.Separating wheat from chaffThe Forest Service is under increasing pressure from high within the agency and, observers contend, from the Bush administration to operate more efficiently, more like a business.In 2002, Forest Chief Dale Bosworth ordered the agency to take stock of all its recreational facilities so it could assess which to keep open and which to close. The inventory was taken in 2003.The White River National Forest, like the 155 other national forests nationwide, has complied with Bosworth’s order by completing a Recreation Facilities Master Plan that lists all its campgrounds, picnic areas, day-use areas, boat ramps and trailheads scattered throughout its 2.3 million acres. Portal Campground landed on the losing end of that list. The agency “decommissioned” the campground at the start of this summer. It received a stay of execution for this season only because the caretakers of the reservoir, who live next door to Portal, volunteered to clean the toilets and watch over the campground if the Forest Service provided toilet paper and cleaning supplies. By next year the old campground, which has served Aspen’s families and visitors for decades, could be gated.No one outside the agency realizes the full implications of the Facilities Master Plan. White River officials won’t release details because the plan isn’t approved by the regional office yet.Robert Funkhouser, co-founder and president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based watchdog of Forest Service funding, suspects the facilities master plan is another step in a broader scheme to overhaul the way the federal government funds the agency.

“It basically says that sites pay for themselves or they’re going to get rid of them,” said Funkhouser.He believes the goal of the Bush administration is to stop allocating any funds tied to recreational uses in the national forests. Funkhouser’s extensive research indicates that 22 out of the nation’s 155 forests have started to enact closures suggested by their facilities master plans. Citing confidential sources within the agency, he claimed that 3,000 to 5,000 sites nationwide will be closed by the time the plan is completed.”The scope is enormous,” said Funkhouser.Those sites will often be remote campgrounds, picnic areas or trailheads – “dispersed” recreation, in Forest Service parlance.In some cases, the Forest Service will use its plan to justify turning sites over to private concessionaires, arguing that it cannot afford to operate them, Funkhouser predicted. The agency will frame the debate around the choices of closing sites or letting a concessionaire operate them.

Local Forest Service officials acknowledge there is a push to be more businesslike. But the push arises from falling budgets, they say, rather than a grand scheme to turn public lands over to private concessionaires or reduce access to public lands.”We count our pennies a lot more,” said Aspen and Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook. “We’re doing things more businesslike because we need to survive.”White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson said dealing with tight budgets is something the agency must adjust to. “Everybody else has to operate on a budget. Why not us?” she asked.The Recreational Facilities Master Plan is a tool that helps determine what the agency can no longer afford to operate, Westbrook said.Even before that planning effort got under way, the agency was forced to make tough decisions about campgrounds. President Kennedy made a big push in the early 1960s to add campgrounds, providing funds for hundreds of sites like Portal, slightly off the beaten track. In the following decades, the Forest Service found itself without the funds to adequately operate and maintain all those campgrounds. For the White River, the problem peaked in the late 1990s.”We were trying to figure out how to supply toilet paper,” said Rich Doak, a recreation planner for the White River National Forest supervisor’s office. The federal government allowed the agency to keep 15 percent of the fees collected for campground operation and maintenance. That wasn’t enough.So the White River turned to concessionaires, as the agency has done with increasing frequency nationwide. A company called 1,000 Trails placed the winning bid in 2001 to manage most campgrounds in the White River. A five-year option was exercised this year, placing 1,000 Trails at the helm through 2011.Places like Portal don’t fit into 1,000 Trail’s business model. It is too costly for the concessionaire to post a host at the campground for the summer because it doesn’t bring in enough fees. The concessionaire is able to opt out of managing the money pits like Portal.The decision to go with a concessionaire allows the Forest Service to concentrate on oversight rather than devote staff to everything from collecting fees to pumping vault toilets, said Gustafson. But she admitted that something has also been lost in the process. Rangers rarely lead campfire discussions about ecological issues anymore. And some people – rangers and campers – miss that all-American event.”It remains a painful topic internally, frankly,” said Gustafson.

The intangible value of having rangers meet forest visitors is one reason management of public forests will never be dictated strictly from a bottom-line perspective, Gustafson insisted. One of her big pushes since taking over the highest post in the White River in 2005 was to find funds to get more rangers roaming the wilderness during summers. Internally, the Forest Service calls the effort “boots on the ground.”Gustafson said the White River National Forest has more visits from recreational users than any other forest in the country. The 11 ski areas that lease public land in the forest draw about 70 percent of those visitors, or nearly 7.5 million visits each winter. It’s impossible to achieve the goal of providing good service to the public if the forest staff is office-bound, she said.She looks at the Recreational Facilities Master Plan as a process that helps the White River staff identify where the public seeks attention and service, rather than a document that shows what sites the agency can close. It’s a matter of perspective, like looking at a glass half-full or half-empty.Other members of the White River staff echo that theme and contend that the responsibilities of public land managers prohibit them, rightly, from taking a pure business approach.”If we really wanted to operate more like a business, we’d do a lot more drastic things,” said Westbrook. For example, it might be uneconomical for the agency to maintain a road to some obscure corner of the forest, he noted. But because the agency doesn’t want to limit access, it typically continues maintaining such roads.”Some things you just can’t make money off of in the national forest, and you shouldn’t make money off of in the national forest,” Westbrook said.

Doak views the facilities master plan and recommendations of what sites to maintain and what to close as the agency’s effort to “change and adapt” to evolving demands and conditions. But it can only respond to some extent – its bigger mission is to maintain the quality of the national forest in perpetuity. Therefore, he said, “There is no way this national forest can meet all expectations.”If the agency operated purely like a business, Doak noted, it would open more routes to off-highway vehicles to match the explosive growth of that form of recreation, for example. But decisions on what routes to open are based largely on what is best for the environmental resources.Expansion of recreation feesHistorically, the Forest Service has not been allowed to keep the money it generates. The money paid by a rancher with a grazing lease, or by an overnight camper at Difficult Campground near Aspen, has traditionally been sent to the U.S. Treasury. National forests depend on annual appropriations from Congress.That funding process forces the Forest Service to operate like a business on the expense side of the ledger, but Congress hasn’t yet allowed the agency to keep the money it generates, like fees from ski area operators.Two years ago, however, the Forest Service and its allies in Congress successfully pushed through legislation that allows the agency to charge fees for some popular recreation sites and retain the revenues. That means the White River National Forest can charge fees to visit the Maroon Bells National Scenic Area and keep the money for operations and maintenance, rather than send the funds back to Washington, D.C. About $135,000 is raised annually from Maroon Bells visitors.”It’s certainly vital to our success,” said Doak. Without the ability to hang onto those funds, the popular Maroon Bells alone would consume most of the Aspen District’s recreational budget.

Recent legislation also allows national forests to keep most of the funds generated from fees paid by outfitters who use forest lands for guided hunting excursions or pack trips. For the White River, that will generate about $322,000 for fiscal year 2007, according to Doak’s current estimate.Still, laws restrict what revenues the Forest Service may keep. If the White River National Forest were allowed to retain all the funds it generates from recreation-related activities, then it would be awash in funding.”We are probably the only forest in the nation that makes money on recreation,” said Doak.But the White River itself does not keep the profits. For example, millions of dollars in fees paid by ski area operators are absorbed each year by the U.S. Treasury.The 11 ski areas that lease public lands in the White River were billed $9.44 million for the 2005-06 season, according to the agency’s billing department. The Forest Service uses a complex formula that combines how much public land is used and a resort’s gross revenues. The Forest Service doesn’t release amounts paid by individual resorts or companies.Of the $9.44 million generated in ski area fees, 25 percent or $2.36 million will eventually be paid to the counties where the resorts are located. The White River itself keeps roughly $330,000 in ski area fees for forest road and trail maintenance.Meanwhile, it costs the agency a substantial amount each year to administer those ski permits. In 2007, the estimated administrative expense will be $681,000, excluding special review and oversight of improvement projects.As bleak as it is, the ski fee ledger for the White River is far better than the balance sheet for oil and gas administration. The lease of mineral rights on forest lands and royalties on natural-gas well production raises funds for the U.S. Treasury. (The specific dollar amounts were unavailable at press time from the Bureau of Land Management, which handles oil and gas leases and royalties for its sister agency. There are, however, 10 producing wells in the White River National Forest.)

Although none of those funds flows directly back to the White River National Forest or even to the Forest Service, the White River racks up expenses for a staff member in the Rifle district dedicated to supervising oil and gas issues.A movement is afoot in the Forest Service and ski industry to allow the agency to retain more of the ski fees.No warning for publicFunkhouser of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition is sympathetic to the plight of local land managers trying to operate on shoestring budgets. He thinks they are getting pinched by the Bush administration’s desire to privatize public lands and make recreation on public lands a moneymaking endeavor.But he and his organization are vehemently opposed to a switch to a fee-based system or a land-management style that ranks the importance of a campground, trail or picnic area based on its ability to make money.The legislation that allows the Forest Service to keep funds generated at places like the Maroon Bells provides incentive for the agency to attract more visitors there, Funkhouser said. At the same time, the agency ignores more humble sites without moneymaking ability, like Portal Campground.If forests get to keep more funds from ski area fees, Funkhouser predicted it will create an incentive for the agency to allow greater expansions so the resorts make more money. He supports charging ski area operators a fee to use public lands, but believes those funds should go to the national treasury. Congress should keep tight oversight of funds budgeted to the Forest Service.

Funkhouser said his investigations show that congressional appropriations for the Forest Service’s recreation budgets aren’t shrinking, as the agency says. He contends recreation funds are getting siphoned off for other uses and diverted away before they reach the district level. How the funds are being used in the alleged shell game is difficult to say, he admitted.”It’s a tough one to work on because the General Accounting Office [the fiscal watchdog branch of Congress] can’t read the Forest Service’s books,” Funkhouser said.The Forest Service has effectively created an illusion that the agency is facing a fiscal crisis when it’s really facing as management crisis, he said. He views the Recreation Facilities Master Plan process as the most disturbing part of that illusion.Funkhouser said any study that recommends closure of up to 5,000 sites nationwide should have been performed with public input and review. Instead, the agency is acting on orders from its Washington, D.C., headquarters to undertake a “soft rollout” where decisions are implemented without announcing them to the public, Funkhouser said. The local officials are the ones who will catch hell when the public notices the closures taking effect next summer, he predicted.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.