The privatization of public campground management

All the info you need to decide whether you love or hate that the Forest Service uses concessionaires.

  • View of Hungry Horse Reservior from Emery Bay Campground on the Flathead National Forest.

    Forest Service Northern Region
 

If you camp at a U.S. Forest Service campground this summer, you’ll probably hand your fee directly to a host employed by a private company, rather than stuffing it into a little brown box on the honor system or giving it to a retiree volunteering for the Forest Service. That's because the majority of the agency's campgrounds are now managed by for-profit companies called "concessionaires."

Both the Forest Service and the companies regard the concessionaire program as a great success in public-private partnership (the term they prefer to "privatization"), and consider it an essential tool for keeping campgrounds open in a time of government belt-tightening and reduced staffing. Concessionaires relieve the agency of day-to-day maintenance duties and the costs they entail, allowing it to put its precious recreation dollars toward other things, says Paul Cruz, the Rocky Mountain Region’s recreation program business manager. (The agency's recreation budget has remained relatively flat for at least a decade, and it's often dipped into to pay for firefighting.) Concessionaires use fees to cover the costs of staffing campgrounds and general upkeep  –  trash removal, cleaning toilets, maintaining water systems  –  with some left over for profit. Proponents say the system shifts costs from the general taxpayer directly to campground users. Where the Forest Service maintains its own campgrounds, the agency typically covers the cost with user fees and taxpayer money.

Opponents of the concessionaire program, however, believe tax dollars should be spent to keep fees low on public land. Public land shouldn't be managed for private profit, they say. "The revenue and the profits are private, but all of the risks are socialized," says Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which advocates against access fees on public land. "You and I are bearing the risk. If the campground has to be rebuilt after a fire, we pay for it, and then it’s handed back to the concessionaires. It's a no-risk business (for the concessionaires)."

For a more in-depth explanation of how the program works, read Concessionaire Campgrounds: An Explainer. We analyzed fees at campgrounds in Colorado, which makes for an interesting case study because, though most of the state’s campgrounds  –  268 of the 336 in our analysis  –  are under private management, one of its national forests has no concessionaires, and publicly managed campgrounds and sprinkled throughout the rest. We excluded group campgrounds from our analysis, and for consistency, looked only at basic tent sites without electrical hookups.

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to High Country News and is based in Santa Fe. She tweets @callycarswell.

Phil Briggs
Phil Briggs
Jul 19, 2014 02:21 PM
Thankfully, they still allow one to camp out far away from any of these 'campgrounds'..... I'd rather stay home than have to camp right next to absolute strangers... I go to public lands to get away from people, not to visit with them.
Bruce Vojtecky
Bruce Vojtecky Subscriber
Jul 20, 2014 04:26 PM
Though this article starts with a retiree hosting a federal campground a few items are not discussed. The host at the federal or state campground gets a host campsite free. The host at the privatized campground, Recreation Resouce Management is the one I am familar with, gets a free host campsite plus a wage of $400 to $800. For a retiree on limited income the extra stipend helps out. I really don't see what difference it would make to the camper as whether the campground is run by government or private the accomadations are the same. If this saves the forest service money than it is good policy.
Bruce Vojtecky
Bruce Vojtecky Subscriber
Jul 20, 2014 04:28 PM
Though this article starts with a retiree hosting a federal campground a few items are not discussed. The host at the federal or state campground gets a host campsite free. The host at the privatized campground, Recreation Resouce Management is the one I am familar with, gets a free host campsite plus a wage of $400 to $800. For a retiree on limited income the extra stipend helps out. I really don't see what difference it would make to the camper as whether the campground is run by government or private the accomadations are the same. If this saves the forest service money than it is good policy.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Jul 22, 2014 02:35 PM
There are, or used to be, various websites to look for what's free in terms of government camping. Even if the green thumbs at the Forest Service are continuing to suck up dinero, there's always BLM sites. Many of them are primitive, tis true, but that's why they're free.
Mike Splain
Mike Splain Subscriber
Jul 22, 2014 02:49 PM
I can't help but see the agency turning over campgrounds to private concessionaires as a massive missed opportunity. As I understand it, the primary savings is avoidance of payroll requirements (insurance benefits, pension, etc.) needed to cover the cost of federal employees babysitting campgrounds. Why not make summer campground host a "stepping stone" seasonal position for conservation corps interns on the path to agency employment? Hosts should be supplying hiking information and natural history interpretation, not firewood and tacky decor. From my limited USFS campground experience (primitive / dispersed camping is so much more appealing after all,) the private concession companies tend to attract a "lowest common denominator" of underachievers who know very little (and care even less) about the spectacular natural landscapes they should be charged with protecting.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Jul 22, 2014 03:32 PM
The question we need to stress is: why is the budget for recreation services flat in the first place? This is not the result of some act of nature or shifting demographics; it is the result of deliberate choices made by Congress, the President, and USFS management.

The USFS has a budget of almost $6 billion per year. About half of that goes to wildfire activities, while only 5% goes to recreation, heritage, and wilderness. The rest goes to other stuff: God knows what… forest products research, Washington DC offices, building roads for loggers, cleaning up after gas extraction is done.

So, let's say that again: only 5% of the USFS budget is directed to letting the public get out and enjoy their forests. And apparently, successive Presidents going back for decades - Republican and Democrat - like it that way.

Crisis? What crisis?
Dave Wade
Dave Wade
Jul 22, 2014 03:39 PM
Mike Splain makes an interesting comment on using the campground host position as an entry level or intern position.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Jul 28, 2014 07:14 AM
Mike Splain, that's sounds like too good of an idea for the Forest Service to implement. And does not involve privatization, a favorite of the current political climate.
Brian Stephens
Brian Stephens Subscriber
Sep 17, 2014 08:39 AM
It's not all bad.

I know of a nonprofit organization that has agreed to run one of these campgrounds while running their programs for children in the outdoors. Pay a fee at the organization's campground and it goes toward educating the youth on team-building, water resources education, night hikes, canoe skills, rock climbing, naturalist skills, sing-a-longs at night, etc.

Should a preference system be given to nonprofit entities that agree to administer these sites? Maybe those with environmental or forest-related missions?