Estacada News: Forest Service faces lawsuit regarding concessionaire program

Written by Scott Jorgensen

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court challenging the processes used by the U.S. Forest Service in implementing a concessionaire program at five areas throughout the country, including the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Bark, a Portland-based environmental nonprofit organization, is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 11 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Olivia Schmidt, a program director for Bark, said the lawsuit was prompted by the implementation of fees at the Big Eddy site along Highway 224 near the Clackamas River.

“That was the last straw for us,” Schmidt said. “When we learned that they were issuing a new fee, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Schmidt said the controversy began in 2010 when notices were issued that the last 28 developed recreational sites at the Mt. Hood National Forest were going to fall under private management through special-use permits issued to concessionaires.

The qualifications for those permits included a categorical exclusion, Schmidt said, which allowed the forest service to circumvent aspects of the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act. That act requires environmental impact analysis and public input for decisions regarding activities on federal land.

“There was a big public outcry about the forest service trying to transfer the management,” Schmidt said.

In response, the Forest Service initiated the NEPA process in early 2011. As part of that, open houses were held and citizens were invited to look at the proposal.

As the process went on, the forest service went ahead and made some changes at the popular Bagby Hot Springs site. Schmidt contends that was done in order to make the site more marketable to private bidders.

“There were a lot of issues around how that was handled,” she said.

The concessionaire contract was awarded to California Land Management last August. That entity is doing business in Oregon as Mt. Hood Recreation.

CLM Services President Eric Mart said that similar concessionaire programs have been around for more than 30 years. He said it began in California with the passage of Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes and limited funding sources for local governments.

“We had the idea that we could contract back and do some of the same things, but more effectively, efficiently and less expensive than government was able to do,” Mart said. “We thought there might be a market for it after Proposition 13.”

In the early 1980s, Mart said, California’s state forest service pioneered a campground concession program, and approached his firm about bidding for a contract.

This isn’t even the first time that CLM has operated a concession program at Mt. Hood National Forest — Mart said the company did so 20 years ago, but was later beaten out in the bidding process by another company.

Mart characterizes CLM’s concessionaire role as being fairly limited.

“We provide security and trash collection. It’s a pretty simple model, really,” Mart said. “It’s not really privatized. We operate it as a forest service facility. We’re simply a facilitator to make it happen. We have no equity interest in it. We’re basically a hospitality services company. We come in and operate it, and we could lose it again when the bid comes up.”

Schmidt said the concessionaires program enables private companies to do things that the forest service would not be allowed to do under the law. She said that under the 2003 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, amenities have to exist at a site in order to charge a fee, but that is not the case at Big Eddie.

But Mart said that CLM charges only for the use of facilities.

“We don’t charge anything for parking or walking through it,” Mart said.

Prior to becoming president of CLM, Mart said he worked in local government in California. Because of that, Mart said, he saw how municipalities struggled to maintain services and adds that the concessionaire program is a creative way to help them deal with budgetary shortfalls in hard times.

“The alternative was to close the facilities. But that’s difficult to do at most national forests because of the nature of how they are laid out,” he said. “The money has to come from somewhere. It’s not coming from the general fund anymore. That’s a problem because there are costs involved. It doesn’t just sit there. The campgrounds have to be maintained.”

Schmidt said the concessionaire program is an example of the forest service “abdicating its responsibility” to maintain public lands for recreation and other uses. She said Bark’s biggest concern is the potential for private companies to profit through the use of public resources.

A court date has yet to be set for the case. As a policy, the U.S. Forest Service does not comment on pending litigation.

Mart said the concessionaire program has thus far proven to be a success.

“Our role is pretty narrowly proscribed by the forest service, and we’re happy to do it,” Mart said. “The way we’re operating it is working well. We don’t get a lot of complaints.”