This is our land – until it’s privatized

  • The campground at Arizona's Rose Canyon Lake, built on Forest Service land with taxpayer money, is now accessible only to those willing to pay a fee to the private company that manages the site.

    Federal Highway Administration

It's 6 a.m. on April 8 as I head out for a hike on Mount Lemmon, in Arizona's Coronado National Forest. Today, the temperature in Tucson will break 90 degrees, so I'm looking forward to the cooler, higher elevations.

Passing Rose Canyon, I notice that the campground is still closed. Making a quick decision, I pull into the empty parking area beside the highway. This may be the last opportunity I'll have for several months to enjoy a free, peaceful and uninterrupted walk in these woods.

Back in the 1950s, as a public service, the U.S. Forest Service created Rose Canyon Lake by damming Rose Creek at the place where the canyon narrows into a steep-sided slot. For generations, the lake has provided a tranquil setting for those wishing to spend quiet time enjoying nature, completely free of charge.

But the times they are a-changing, and so is the "public service" role of the Forest Service.

This morning, a gentle breeze sings softly in the tops of towering ponderosa pines. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the air is clean and sweet. I walk past a sprawling picnic pavilion crowded with concrete tables, festooned with banquet-sized cooking grates, and covered by a large metal roof. "Reservations Required to Use This Site," the sign reads. "Contact Reserve America."

Shortly, I pick up meandering Rose Creek. Though it has been a dry winter, there is still a trickle of water, and I find a few shallow pools. By staying near the creek, I mostly avoid the pavement – lined with 72 developed campsites – that leads for a mile-and-a-half down to the lake.

By and by, a curve in the road crosses the creek, and just around the bend I spot a large recreational vehicle. The "campground host" is setting up for the season, which starts April 12. An American flag hangs prominently next to the RV, giving the impression that the inhabitant is a representative of the U.S. Forest Service. He is not, however: The Forest Service outsources management of its most popular campgrounds to private concessionaires. This particular campground host works for a Phoenix-based corporation called Recreation Resource Management. Though the company's vehicles and uniforms resemble those of the federal agency, these employees are not the noble forest rangers of days gone by, nor do they own the land they manage. American taxpayers have provided the infrastructure, including the recently completed, six-year renovation at Rose Canyon. In exchange for running the site, the concessionaire collects the profits.

But national forest concessionaires don't honor federal agency passes or follow the same rules that govern the Forest Service when it comes to fees. I notice that the fee booth on Mount Lemmon is closed. That is because the law does not allow the Forest Service to charge visitors for simple access – for parking and walking through the national forest. But when RRM opens the campground at Rose Canyon, all visitors will have to pay $10 just to park and walk around the lake. In fact, even if you park along the highway, as I did, RRM will charge you for walking through "their" campground, built with your tax dollars.

It seems shocking to say it, but this privatization of what were once public resources was recently upheld by the Washington, D.C., District Court, in a lawsuit in which I was one of six plaintiffs. We challenged the Coronado and four other national forests' use of concessionaires to evade laws that restrict what fees the agency itself can charge. We lost.

I reach the shore and see, out in the lake, a pair of ducks trailing ripples on its glassy surface. No one else is around on this glorious morning. I'm going to use this quiet time to reflect on what to say in a letter to my congressman. The law that governs fees in national forests is up for renewal or replacement this year, and I believe these fees must be fought, and fought hard.

Only Congress can end the unhealthy alliance that has developed between the Forest Service and its concessionaires. Concessionaires have introduced a profit motive into the management of our national forests, and, as a result, the job of preserving the natural character of Rose Canyon has suffered.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service seems bent on placing its private partners' profitability above public service. The development that, as taxpayers, we all paid for is plain to see. But this summer, when it's 100 degrees in Tucson, you'll only see it if you pay the price of admission.

Greg Lewis is an Elder for ecological issues at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Peter Nelson
Peter Nelson Subscriber
May 13, 2014 05:41 PM
Thanks for drawing attention to what may not seem like an important issue. My feeling is that increasing the cost of access to public lands will reduce the number of people who experience them--and come to love and protect them. For me, "improvements" like flush toilets and paved parking lots, while necessary to address the impact of visitors beyond some level, detract from the experience and often are thoroughly unnecessary. Regardless, there's something especially galling about this form of profiteering from a public resource--opportunities to opt out seem to be limited to staying out! That said, I'm also struck by the parallels between my own disgust with privatizing wilderness access and those protesting BLM regulations limiting OHV access to public lands. While I'm 100% against the actions of those driving their ATVs through these closed areas (frankly, I'd just as soon they were banned from public lands altogether), why should my preferences determine how everyone else experiences our land? Surely that isn't so different from the frustrations of the Bundy/Lyman protest! I'd like to think that my approach limits my own impact on the land, leaving it comparatively pristine for others to experience, but the bottom line, I believe, is that conservation, to be effective, must come from the bottom up. I'm not sure folks like Bundy are capable of learning (or of learning what I think they ought to know!), but if locals and visitors alike can recognize the value of a country unmarred by the physical and acoustic scars of OHVs then the BLM issue largely disappears. And 'pay to play'? Maybe folks can learn that you don't need wifi in your campsite to enjoy the stars.
Jeremy Apodaca
Jeremy Apodaca
May 13, 2014 07:08 PM
The privatization of public land, mostly by the USFS but also to some extent by the other federal land agencies only grows worse, even in the face of court decisions over-ruling the USFS.

Those that have concerns might want to take a look at the Western Slope No Fee Coalition,
W John Faust
W John Faust Subscriber
May 14, 2014 11:22 AM
Would like to see the cost-benefit analysis the USFS prepared for this deal.
Kerry Wood
Kerry Wood
May 20, 2014 09:02 PM
I think it's fair to say the other side of the coin is not well represented in this article or comments. If you haven't seen the news lately, wildfire continues to ravage both the land as well as budgets. There is and has been attempts to better manage the overwhelming price of fighting wildfires but the fact remains that recreation/trails has taken a backseat in budgeting priorities within the USFS. Whether it's privatization of facilities or outright closure, much of this can be attributed to the sucking sound heard every year due to fire management. I'm not going to speculate on the fire side of things (as that's a whole other conversation) but I think it's safe to say this type of thing including reduction of facilities and services will continue until the recreation/trails side of things gets it's fair due. Heck, read the dismal GAO report on trails mgmt of the USFS as a primer.
Tim Jones
Tim Jones
Jul 09, 2014 09:29 AM
I agree with the above comment. My thoughts on the above article. I spend many days in forest service campgrounds. What I have found is the people that use these campgrounds have really changed. The other day I was talking to a real park ranger and he stated that the park service fiqures less then 20 percent of visitors pay any fees compared to the past when 80 percent of the people camping payed. They just can't continue to operate the campgrounds without any fees coming in. With the budget cuts, users have to pay fees to keep thing open.If you spend any time at all in any campground you would not believe what people do there, very few abide by any of the rules. Since the forest service can't man every campground, they are forced to bring in someone to run the campground or close it. That is the only choice they have. Some county sherrifs are telling the forest service that they will not patrol these wild campgrounds unless the put some control on the situation. Many of the family campers are being forced out of these campground by the homeless, hippie type people that move in unless they are made to pay. People have changed, times have changed, wake up!
Bill Lundeen
Bill Lundeen
Jul 21, 2014 03:11 PM
Greg! Bill Lundeen from Tioga Pass. Finally made it to this site... excellent article (of course) and something we are experiencing here in the Sierra as well, in spite of not having the FLREA stuff. We need to take back our public lands! Sorry I missed you and Gaye this summer at TPR