An analysis report shows widespread antipathy to the U.S. Forest Service’s increasing reliance on private concessionaires to manage publicly owned recreation facilities, according to a posting by Fly Rod & Real Online.
The report, titled “Whose Forests Are They Anyway?” takes a look at common themes in over 4,000 public comments that were sent in when the Forest Service proposed late last year to eliminate 50% camping discounts for senior and disabled lifetime passholders at campgrounds managed by private firms. Comments were submitted from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and three Canadian provinces.
The report shows that the proposal enjoyed almost no public support. It was driven by private concessionaires and their concern that the increasing number of seniors eligible for the discount is hitting their bottom lines.
A second, and unexpected finding, was that the public is widely dissatisfied with the use of private firms to manage federal recreation sites at all. The comments clearly indicated that the public wants a return to a simplified system whereby the Forest Service manages its own campgrounds with strong support and oversight by elected congressional representatives.
One person quoted in the report said, “I am dismayed by the general movement toward privatization which has inundated our government over the years. I fondly remember the days when Forest Service employees, not private contractors, greeted campers such as myself. Those employees loved the woods and were instrumental in instilling that love and appreciation into millions of visitors to our country’s outdoor spaces. Concessionaires fulfill no such role.”
Another put it more succinctly: “This proves why privatization of the national campgrounds was a horrid mistake from the get go.”
The report’s third finding was that even though the Forest Service withdrew the camping discount proposal in mid-March, problems at day-use sites remain. Day-use fees, known as Standard Amenity Fees, are required by law to be covered by the Interagency Pass, also called the America the Beautiful Pass. The Forest Service, however, does not require its concessionaires to honor the passes at Standard Amenity Fee sites, even though the agency would be legally required to do so if they managed the site directly. The decision whether or not to use a private concessionaire is made internally by the agency, without public input or comment.
Likewise, increases to concessionaire fees are approved administratively without undergoing the public participation and advisory committee approval that is required for increases to agency-collected fees.
“This has resulted in a patchwork of different rules at different sites, and has confused and angered people who purchased their pass thinking it would cover all entrance and day-use fees,” said Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, who authored the report. “By turning a site over to private management, the Forest Service is bypassing federal requirements, not to mention oversight by Congress and the public.” Keeping public lands accessible, affordable and in the public domain – with oversight by our elected representatives in Washington – was the strong message sent by the public.