Note to concessionaires: You don’t own the land

A reminder for private companies that public land use permits don’t make them owners.

 

I've never liked the fact that Forest Service staffers – chained to their desks -- hire private concessionaires to run some of the day-use recreation areas in our national forests.  Ever since the October federal government shutdown, I like it even less -- thanks to one man who revealed what he really thinks of the deal: He claimed that his “Special Use Permit” from the agency turned our public lands into his "private parks."

The man is Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, which holds permits to operate campgrounds and day-use sites in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. During the federal shutdown of 1995, his company was allowed to continue its operations on federal land. This time, though, things were different, and Meyer wasn’t happy about it.

Though Meyer’s concessions in the Red Rock Ranger District in Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon stayed open for eight days of the 17-day closure, he protested to the media that he was running “privately funded operations” and therefore shouldn’t have had to close at all. Meyer, a board member, past president and current treasurer of the National Forest Recreation Association, was apparently expressing the opinion of all concessionaires on federal land.

The financial impact of the park closings were felt immediately around Grand Canyon National Park, causing cancelled hotel reservations and a sharp reduction in tourist traffic. In response, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer struck a deal with the feds, allowing Arizona to pay to reopen the park. That gave Meyer an opening to argue on his website blog that he had a lot in common with the governor.

It was “arbitrary and capricious,” he said, for the federal government to allow Arizona and Utah to fund national parks and keep them open, yet not allow him to operate as well: “So why can't private parks on federal lands be reopened through the use of private funding, which is how we operate anyway?”

I have news for Meyer: If he wants to operate a private park, he needs to buy some land on which to run his business.  The last time I checked, U.S. Forest Service land was still the property of the federal government and thus the property of every citizen of this country. As long as he chooses to run his business on our land, he will be subject to the same political tides and bureaucratic nightmares as the rest of us -- ridiculous though some of them may be.

Meyer argued on his blog that the shutdown of privately managed sites within national forests was “an unnecessary and vindictive hardship placed on recreators, since our sites don't take one dime of government money.” That is hardly the case, since the companies operating concessions on public land keep money that would otherwise go to the Forest Service.

Meyer also claims that concessionaires like him “actually make lease payments to the government.” The fees paid by concessionaires for these special use permits, however, are largely mythical, as in practice, any savvy businessman knows legal ways to avoid paying them. Almost always, 100 percent of any fees are offset through write-offs for maintenance and repairs.

What’s more, when special use permits are issued to concessionaires, all bets are off when it comes to following the laws that are applied to sites run by the Forest Service. For starters, concessionaires are not required to accept interagency access passes. This is to ensure that they maintain their status as “business opportunities” rather than be mistaken for “providing more of a public service,” according to a Forest Service memo issued March 2007. If they were legally considered to be providing a public service, they would be forced to hire educated federal employees and pay them according to the federal pay scale rather than at minimum wage.

On Oct. 15, Meyer’s company, the trade group he steers and two other private concession operators filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service to protest the closings.  In their complaint, Meyer and his cohorts asked to reopen their concessions. Two days later, the agency countered with a motion for dismissal as the reopening of the federal government rendered the complaint “moot.”  So no court has intervened in this debate over privatizing some of our public lands.

Still, it’s probably not the best idea to sue your primary business partner, especially when that partner owns the land you operate your business on.

Cindy Cole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a freelance writer and photographer who makes her home in Sedona, Arizona. Her book, Red Rock Ripoff, is available at tinyurl.com/buyredrockripoff.

Linda VanFossan
Linda VanFossan Subscriber
Dec 14, 2013 08:02 AM
Thank you, Cindy for this article. You have expressed my sentiments exactly, and also those of many other citizens too. Keep up the good work.
Nick Droege
Nick Droege
Dec 15, 2013 11:16 AM
Excellent article- thanks! I'm an English teacher and a stickler for grammar. Would you mind confirming this correction for me: "The financial impact of the closing WAS felt immediately..."
I was just teaching this kind of construction to my students the other day. Thanks!
Nick Droege
Nick Droege
Dec 15, 2013 11:46 AM
Oh sorry, I didn't check my own typing, and there doesn't seem to be a way to edit comments! "The financial impact of the park closings WAS felt immediately..."
THanks!
Nick
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
Dec 16, 2013 09:33 AM
Well, if I ever said "private parks" it was a rare slip of the tongue, or more likely I was misquoted in the press. What my company does is privately operate public parks. I don't actually advocate for private ownership of public lands, and think I actually have a pretty good understanding of why unique lands should stay public: e.g. here: http://www.privatizationblo[…]on-park-privatization.html. As I have said about a million times, I am not trying to own the land, I am trying to clean the bathrooms cheaper than can civil service workers.

That being said, I was indeed angry that the government shut down the public parks we operate -- and you should be too. Ms. Cole is missing the whole point -- the whole point of the "private" part of my complain was that these parks'operations are FUNDED privately, meaning that they require no federal funds of any sort. This is why they should not have been shut down, as the shut down was merely to stop federal spending for which there was no budget authority. One advantage of concession operation is that they operate independently of the Federal budget, and thus should be sheltered from this kind of political garbage.

These privately operated parks were never closed in past government shutdowns, and in fact the US Forest Service was going to leave us open until they were ordered to close us by Administration officials, presumably because they wanted to increase the political pressure on Congress. Your public parks, which had the money to stay open, were used as a political football. On the day we were closed, I had to call 6 couples who were scheduled to have their weddings the next day in Sedona area parks we operate and tell them they had to find somewhere else for their wedding. Of course I was angry.
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
Dec 16, 2013 09:39 AM
By the way, when this finally made a Federal court, the judge absolutely lambasted the Forest Service for closing us, and we got an order to reopen (though since it was the same day as the shutdown ended, it had little effect). It turns out I was in fact on very solid legal ground criticizing our closure.

The author clearly does not like the concession program -- so be it. Without this program, many of these parks would have closed long ago, as it costs the USFS substantially more to operate these sites and they simply do not have that money. However, I understand that many folks are skeptical about private enterprise, and that's their right. However, I asked to be criticized on our merits -- e.g. these sites we operate are run well or poorly, they are a good value or a bad value, they preserve nature or they don't -- and not judged based on invented straw man arguments for mine.
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
Dec 16, 2013 09:47 AM
By the way, there is an odd bias here. She assumes since the Feds filed a motion of dismissal that is what happened in the case. In fact the case still continues, and the Federal judge is open to ruling on the case to establish a precedent for future shutdowns. Ms. Cole writes as if the court rebuked me in some way, but if you are really interested, I encourage you to read the transcripts. The judge tore into the government on this one: http://www.coyoteblog.com/c[…]-for-the-next-shutdown.html

As one final note, Ms. Cole knows quite well how to get in contact with me and has sought information from me for her stories on a number of occasions, but did not interview me for this story or seek comment from me.
Mark Liveringhouse
Mark Liveringhouse
Dec 16, 2013 12:12 PM
No matter what you want to believe ;

1. The Federal government was clearly violating the lease contract that they had with the private operators of these parks ;
2. The reason for closing these privately operated parks was to inflict harm to the citizens of the United States to make a political point ;
3. the author claims that money paid to private companies is money that would go instead to the Forest Service or some other government agency. This is false. Because the government cannot affordably operate many of these parks and recreational activities they would have been closed long ago.

4. I highly doubt your claims about the lack of lease payments. That some of these payments are "offset" by "maintenance" and "repairs" says more about the authors lack of understanding of accounting and the real situation than anything else.

5. Regardless of the actual lease cash flow, one thing I can guarantee is that when government agencies operated these facilities they operated in the red and the public places received much less maintenance and improvements than they do with private operators. So, even if the Forest Service or other government agencies do not receive a penny in lease payments with private operators, they are coming out far ahead of the game.
6. And, most importantly, so is the public. Because private operators can keep more public parks open, operate them in more conditions, and provide much higher quality parks than what the government can, we are all better off. Even socialists like Ms. Cole.
Norm Donovan
Norm Donovan
Dec 16, 2013 10:30 PM
"since the companies operating concessions on public land keep money that would otherwise go to the Forest Service."

What a bizarre understanding of the world.

Sure the concessionaires "keep the money" but they provide services that the Forest Service does not have to provide.

I suppose in your view of the world, your hairdresser is keeping the money that would otherwise go to you.
Tom Ricketts
Tom Ricketts Subscriber
Dec 17, 2013 03:30 PM
Welcome to the new world of quasi-private recreation on your lands. If you think any of these concessionaires give a damn about anything other than profit then dream on. This does and always has set a very dangerous precedent for "public" lands! I don't give a damn if the toilets are clean or not, especially if it means turning public lands over to private enterprise.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Dec 17, 2013 04:37 PM
Re Mr. Meyer.

Your blanket assertions about the USFS not being able to afford to run campgrounds is unsubstantiated. The budget conditions at the FS are a result of decisions to reduce funding and starve the service made by past administrations - money was quite deliberately steered away from recreation towards resource extraction and fire fighting. This approach is torn right from the playbook of privatization. Recreation costs comprise a ridiculously small portion of the FS budget.

In addition, the fact that your firm most likely pays your employees much less than comparable FS employees, and offers them less benefits, is nothing to brag about (if I am wrong on this point, feel free to correct me). As the author of the article pointed out, these deals are often riddled with hidden subsidies and profit guarantees such as maintenance offsets, cost-plus provisions, and the like.

In fact, numerous studies across various services have shown that private contracting often ends up substantially more expensive, and the level of service is often worse. The whole myth about efficiency underlying private contracting is looking increasingly threadbare.

I have not been to your sites, so I am not commenting on yours specifically.

Another thing private concessions do is drive out rustic and low-development camping in favor of a more intensive development approach to the sites. (running water, paved pads, wireless internet...)

Further, I take issue with your complaints that the closures were political. The whole thing was political. The Congressional Republicans had a tantrum and demanded a government shutdown; so that is exactly what they got. Then they had a another tantrum because everything was actually shut down. Public policy run by children.

This episode reminds me of a leading privatization horror story: the people who privatized the Chicago parking meter system got themselves a sweetheart deal with guaranteed revenue - if the city wants to close a street for a parade or block party, the "owners" get a check anyway. That's the real face of privatization.
Donna Reed
Donna Reed
Dec 18, 2013 11:55 PM
No doubt a Freudian slip, huh, Warren? The fact of the matter is that it is much more expensive to stay at a concession run campground than a comparable one run by the USFS. His only motivation is profit, pure and simple.

The reason the USFS was losing money at campgrounds was because all revenues generated were deposited in the Treasury general fund.
Donna Reed
Donna Reed
Dec 19, 2013 12:02 AM
Under the current FLREA legislation, 95% of the money generated at an FS managed campground are reinvested into those facilities. No profit motive by the Forest Service. Warren is a greedy multimillionaire who is simply biting the hand that continues to feed him. What an ingrate.
Donna Reed
Donna Reed
Dec 19, 2013 12:18 AM
@Mark Liverhouse. You do not have a clue about the concession industry. You might actually research the issue a little bit before you go spouting off on how much better concession run camps. It is quite clear you do not have a basic understanding of how this situation has evolved over the past 30 years. Keep drinking that RRM koolaid....
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann
Dec 20, 2013 10:24 AM
I hate to burst your bubble but when the government shut down they had a hearing involving the Ute tribes the federal government including cabinets from DOJ, DOI, ENERGY, NATURAL RESOURCES, CLAIMS COMMISSION,IIM, GREEN TREE GENEOLOGY, the states of Utah, Colorado, new Mexico
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann
Dec 20, 2013 10:40 AM
I'm sorry my phones acting up so as i was saying all these cabinets are involved plus more, i sued the Ute tribe natural resources and BIA for gross misconduct and over the fact they refused to tell me where my boundary line is located, which i still don't know, i asked the Cobell litigation if they would help me when i sent our paperwork in for our claim on my moms estate, apparently some of my tribes leaders had split my moms estate up among themselves and almost got away with itI'm not really sure about what's going on because I'm fighting this without legal help so I'm kinda behind but i won my case on grounds of breech of contract thinking were done with it until i don't get what was awarded so back to court for non compliance and its complicated!! But I was awarded land signed into a treaty, lands in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, now you know more of the truth what do you think but this isn't all of it, wow, its mind blowing
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann
Dec 20, 2013 10:43 AM
I hate to burst your bubble but when the government shut down they had a hearing involving the Ute tribes the federal government including cabinets from DOJ, DOI, ENERGY, NATURAL RESOURCES, CLAIMS COMMISSION,IIM, GREEN TREE GENEOLOGY, the states of Utah, Colorado, new Mexico
petula kunnemann
petula kunnemann
Dec 20, 2013 10:49 AM
I can mail my documents to you if you would like to see them
Rita Gibbs
Rita Gibbs
Dec 25, 2013 07:57 PM
I have to support Warren on this. That damn government shutdown ruined my son's fall vacation and probably a 100,000 others' too. The fact is that NO FEDERAL WORKERS or $$ are used at these privately operated campgrounds, so there was no reason to close them. The shutdown harmed tourists and concessionaires but more importantly, local businesses that depend on tourism. From Sedona to Springdale to Page, many small outfitters and businesses got screwed. All for no good reason. That's what real pisses me off. There was no discernment used by the Feds. Idiots.
Rita Gibbs
Rita Gibbs
Dec 25, 2013 07:57 PM
I have to support Warren on this. That damn government shutdown ruined my son's fall vacation and probably a 100,000 others' too. The fact is that NO FEDERAL WORKERS or $$ are used at these privately operated campgrounds, so there was no reason to close them. The shutdown harmed tourists and concessionaires but more importantly, local businesses that depend on tourism. From Sedona to Springdale to Page, many small outfitters and businesses got screwed. All for no good reason. That's what real pisses me off. There was no discernment used by the Feds. Idiots.
Rita Gibbs
Rita Gibbs
Dec 25, 2013 08:08 PM
private concessioners on public land is not a new thing. they have been around a long time. I generally don't like them. They sell overpriced food and control all the lodging at the Grand Canyon and a Lake Powell. The campgrounds seem to be well run, at least those I have visited. Would I prefer a park ranger? Sure, but our govmt can't seem to properly fund all these parks and campgrounds, so the choice is close them or let private operators run them.