The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers erred in reducing operating hours at numerous Arkansas campgrounds without consulting the public first, a top Corps official said Monday (Jan. 28).
Col. Mike Wehr, head of the Corps office that crafted the reduction plan, told a crowd of about 50 people at a meeting in Blakely Mountain just west of Hot Springs, Ark., that he’ll present a plan to restore at least some of the campgrounds to their traditional schedules at a follow-up meeting on Feb. 11, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Little Rock.
The plan could include proposals to lease some campground operations to private contractors in order to restore the sites to their traditional operating hours, Wehr said.
“I’ll be as aggressive as possible to find solutions,” Wehr told the crowd, which included representatives from the business community, the tourism industry and Arkansas legislators’ offices. “There are bridges that have to be rebuilt here because we weren’t constructive in this process.” The meeting was by invitation only.
Wehr, who flew in from the Corps’ regional headquarters in Vicksburg, Miss., held the meeting in response to criticism from Arkansans upset about the reduction plan.
The plan, finalized in November, shrank the summer season at most campgrounds on lakes Ouachita, DeGray and Greeson by at least one month.
It also closed the Class A campground on Lake Ouachita near Crystal Springs for sixth months out of the year, and eliminated the practice of opening closed campgrounds to accommodate overflow crowds at other sites.
The Corps blames the adjustments on inadequate federal funding, inflated operating costs and a backlog of long-term maintenance projects.
The end result, Wehr said, is that the Corps fell $700,000 to $800,000 short of what it needed to operate the campgrounds on their traditional schedules.
Still, the Corps received $ 121,000 more to operate the three lakes this fiscal year than it did last year.
Bill Barnes, president of the Lake Ouchita Association, said the decision to reduce operating hours is hurting tourism in Arkansas.
Not only has the camping season been reduced at some sites, Barnes said, but potential campers now erroneously believe all campgrounds on the three lakes are closed year-round.
“You’ve hurt Arkansas tremendously,” he said.
The group suggested many ways Wehr could reduce costs or generate new revenue to restore the campgrounds to their traditional schedules.
The ideas included:
Wehr suggested turning over the campgrounds’ operations to private contractors. He said Corps districts nationwide are contracting out campground operations as operating the sites become costlier. The Corps must forward all the campground fees it collects from users to the U. S. Treasury. Contractors could retain the user fees themselves.
John Segrest, chief of real estate for Wehr’s district, said such an arrangement might be attractive to those who already own businesses on or near campground sites.
Segrest said he’s already seen interest from one individual.
Wehr said he’ll draft a plan to restore operating hours at some of the sites by incorporating the group’s suggestions.
He said he would e-mail the plan to those in attendance, and then host another meeting on Feb. 11 to discuss it.
Wehr said he wants to find a solution acceptable to Arkansans.
“The priority is on this,” Wehr said. “This is what’s keeping me up at night.”