Yakima Herald: Rising fees on public lands taking a toll

by Scott Sandsberry for the Yakima Herald-Republic
published: April 9th, 2014

The always-contentious issue of pay-to-play on public lands recently became far more heated.

Two unrelated developments — one in Congress, the other in the courts — could make it more expensive for campers and others to recreate on public lands. At stake, some say, is nothing less than equal access to national parks and forests.

The controversy involves the widespread use of private concessionaires — and the fees they charge the public — to run campgrounds, a trend that has grown as agency budgets have dwindled. An estimated 80 percent of the Forest Service’s most highly developed campgrounds are now run by private operators, including many in the Naches and Cle Elum ranger districts.

Underway in Congress is a possible revamping of guidelines spelled out under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) of 2004, which governs recreation fees that concessionaires and the federal government can charge on federally managed lands.

The law was set to expire in December but was extended last fall to December 2015. That was a relief to outfitter-guide services whose activities require permits from agencies, such as the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service.

During the extension period, special-interest lobbyists — including the American Recreation Coalition, which represents concessionaires — have been working with legislators to amend the FLREA.

Meanwhile, a recent U.S. Circuit Court ruling out of Washington, D.C., effectively exempted private concessionaires — which oversee operations at the vast majority of campgrounds and day-use sites — from being bound by the same FLREA guidelines as the federal agencies they’re working for.

“This is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Forest Service, that would remove its recreation policies from congressional oversight altogether,” Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said in her testimony last week before the House subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

The court ruling resulted from BARK v. United States Forest Service. BARK is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Mount Hood National Forest from what it calls “commercial destruction.”

BARK and five others sued the Forest Service over its increasing use of concessionaires, which now run most of the agency’s most highly developed campgrounds. The organization contends it was the Forest Service’s way of circumventing the FLREA’s restrictions on recreation fees.


‘Pay to pee’

Locally, national forest visitors pay more to stay at campgrounds managed by Central Oregon-based concessionaire Hoodoo Recreation. Hoodoo maintains 26 of the 50 campgrounds in the Naches and Cle Elum ranger districts, at more than twice the average user fee paid at Forest Service-run campgrounds.

Each district also has numerous fee-free sites available for “dispersed” camping, where campers are expected to bring in and haul out everything they need.

In testimony last week before a subcommittee, Benzar said growing dependence on concessionaires by the Forest Service — which after two decades of declining budgets doesn’t have the manpower to maintain all of its campgrounds — could mean use fees at dispersed camping and other sites that have so far been fee-free.

Noting that the FLREA contained “what Congress thought were ironclad prohibitions” on how and for what rec-use fees could be charged, Benzar said federal land managers “have become experts at taking phrases in the FLREA that say one thing and twisting them to mean the opposite.”

“In the context of these agencies’ past actions,” Benzar said, early FLREA amendment drafts indicate “they would charge a fee anyplace that there is any sort of a toilet in the vicinity — even a Porta-Potty. The amenities threshold of where fees could be charged would be reduced to nearly zero.

“This bill would be a throwback to the anything-goes authority already proven to be a failure ... ‘Pay to play’ would become ‘pay to pee.’”

Most of the campgrounds Hoodoo runs for the Forest Service in the Naches and Cle Elum districts are the higher-end sites with more amenities, such as multiple vault toilets, potable water and picnic tables. And users are paying more than twice as much for those extra amenities — an average of $16.80 for a single site, and $7.80 for a second vehicle — than other sites run by the Forest Service. Average rates at the 24 campgrounds run by ranger district staffers are $7.42 for a single site and $5 (or, at a few sites, nothing) for a second vehicle.

Not for everyone

Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition — which helped create the 1996 Fee Demo program that drew criticism and was overhauled by the FLREA — testified last week that concessionaires in the national parks and forests are “not interested in levying charges for things that the public does not want.”

The Forest Service, Crandall said, “has no intent institutionally to use concessionaires as a mechanism to collect fees that are outside the scope of the FLREA. I think there is a solution here, but there is no willing agreement on the part of the businesses operating on the national parks to act as an agent for illegal collection of fees by the Forest Service or BLM.”

More expensive access to public lands could create a situation in which recreation is available to those who can afford it, rather than anyone who wants it.

So warned BARK volunteer and board member Amy Harwood.

“There’s a lot of people who will pay it. (Concessionaires) are not going to charge it if people aren’t willing to pay it,” Harwood said. “But the question is, who’s paying it?

“You end up changing the demographic of the people who are able to use that public land. That’s just wrong to me,” Harwood said, adding that many people choose where they live based on convenient recreational access to public lands.

“I think national forests are something that make even the most broke person among us feel rich.”