Privatization threatens an Arizona national forest

  • Kitty Benzar


Once upon a time, the Western public lands -- places like our national forests and parks -- were supported with American tax dollars.

In return, we were welcome to use them. Undeveloped areas required no money to enter, and developed facilities were basic but affordable. Land managers were public servants whose mission was stewardship - or so it seemed.

As in a fairy tale, public lands have fallen under an evil spell. Now the most popular of them sport high-end facilities with prices set to whatever the market will bear. Now, land managers implement business plans while we, the citizen-owners, have been downgraded to mere "customers." Nowadays, even simple access frequently requires payment of a fee.

The latest place to fall under the spell is the Payson Ranger District of Arizona's Tonto National Forest. The district is currently soliciting bids on the for-profit management of virtually all recreation there. The successful bidder will control more than 25 facilities located on your public land and constructed using your tax dollars. And the winning bidder won't even be required to follow the same federal laws as the national forest would have to, if it continued doing its job.

The Forest Service defends recreation fees by claiming that the agency retains the money and uses it to directly benefit the very place you paid to visit. By leasing federally owned recreation facilities to private firms, the agency makes a mockery of that argument. Fees become just another tax, and concessionaires become private tax collectors.

In a prospectus issued in early March, the Payson District began soliciting companies to privatize six family campgrounds, four group sites, a horse campground, an interpretive site, 10 picnic areas and seven trailheads. The prospectus vastly expands the number of fee sites on the district and does so without public involvement or comment. It's a clear attempt to evade federal legal requirements and prohibitions on where fees can be charged.

What's more, the winning bidder will not be required to honor federally issued recreation passes. The concessionaire will be allowed to issue and sell a pass of its own creation and keep all revenues. Furthermore, the concessionaire will be allowed to charge fees that the national forest is prohibited from charging, including fees just to park your car and gain access to trails and the backcountry.

A law called the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act was supposed to set strict limits on the recreation fees the Forest Service can and cannot charge. But in a feat of hocus-pocus, the agency says it can simply set these limits aside when it surrenders lands to a concessionaire's private control.

The Enhancement Act also requires that any proposed new fee sites must undergo a robust and transparent public process, with final review by a citizen advisory committee. Apparently, that's become too much if a hassle for the agency, because it doesn't always get the needed public support. Land managers on the Payson have chosen to hand over previously free recreation sites to a concessionaire and declare the process exempt from the law.

The Tonto National Forest is attempting to do all this at the Payson District's picnic areas, trailheads and a prehistoric Native American village, even though four of the picnic sites were improved in 2010 with taxpayer dollars. We own these sites, and we just paid to fix them up. Isn't it an outrage that the Forest Service intends to allow a private company to sell us access to our own investment?

The Tonto did not invent this policy, but it is among the worst offenders. There is an America the Beautiful Pass that costs $80 and allows entry into all national parks for a year. It also covers day-use fees at virtually all Forest Service-operated recreation sites. But it won't get you into the Tonto. For that, you need to upgrade the interagency pass and pay an additional $15. That makes the Tonto the most expensive federal recreational land in the country. And soon, even your pricey new Tonto Pass won't allow you access to most recreational opportunities on the Payson Ranger District. As for your lifetime Senior or Disabled Pass, both of them will be nearly worthless.

Across the national forest system, creeping privatization has overtaken recreation like the briars that defended Sleeping Beauty's castle. We need more defenders of free access to our public lands, and you don't even need to kiss any frogs to speak out; just email Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at and tell him that federal law applies on all federal land. Otherwise, the concept of public lands is nothing but a fairy tale.

Kitty Benzar is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She runs the Western No-Fee Coalition in Durango, Colorado.

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

Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Apr 29, 2011 09:08 AM
This is one of those perplexing and troubling problems with recreation and access on the National Forests -- while I'm dismayed by an increase in fees, especially on the most mundane of activities like parking, I also realize that recreation is near the bottom of federal funding priorities.

So the question becomes, how do we fund recreation management on the NF's? While we can decry the shift, how do we convince the political structure in D.C. that this is important in the face of looming deficits and competing interests like health care and defense?

For me the really troubling undertone is the possibility that the local district has succumbed to the 'free-market' dogma and that has motivated the shift rather than simply a search for revenue.
Bill Benson
Bill Benson
Apr 30, 2011 09:35 PM
The Forest Service does not have a funding problem. They have a spending problem. Look at how much they spend fighting forest fires with quarter of a million dollar fire trucks that can only fight forest fires that burn along side roads.

It's really an agency that has lost it's focus and purpose. They now listen to private industry who is all too willing and able to privatize and make a profit off the forest.

If the concessionaire play the game right little if any cash ever flows back to the local forest. They "exchange work" for maintenance of the facility and the Forest Service lets the concessionaire maintain our facilities instead receiving cash from the concessionaire.

Duane Poslusny
Duane Poslusny Subscriber
May 03, 2011 11:07 AM
The public needs to fight these types of privatization or "public-private partnerships." Once these contracts are awarded it is very hard if not illegal for the government to resume the services they previously provided. I've worked for both the Forest Service and Park Service and have seen the decline in quality of services and massive increases in fees so Xanterra, Aramark, American Land and Leisure and other companies make profit at expense of their employees and the public.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
May 03, 2011 02:26 PM
I refuse to pay such fees until loggers and ranchers are charged adequate fees.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick
Jeanne Kirkpatrick Subscriber
May 03, 2011 03:19 PM
The Forest Service does have a spending problem, but its not those on the ground in the districts who decide that all their money goes to fighting fire and safeguarding summer homes in the wildland-urban interface, often half way across the country. A proposal to separate firefighting funds from general operating expenses of the national forest units would take some steam out of proposals like that at Tonto NF. Which, as mentioned, is a glaring betrayal of the public trust.

Very well written op-ed! Thanks, and I will email the FS to let them know what they already should: that privatization is a bad idea. Whose administration is this now anyway?
Helena James
Helena James
May 04, 2011 08:06 AM
This is happening at the state forest level also, at least in Washington State. Many of our State forest lands are now gated and off limits to the public, in order to protect the mushroom and brushpicking leases that the State has signed. Thanks for the article!
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
May 04, 2011 02:00 PM
Folks, you're missing an important point. Tonto is in ARIZONA, home of SB 1070, the water-table ruining 'proposed' Rosemont copper mine, and multiple half-baked, hare-brained challenges to Federal authority. I'm just glad we don't have oil or natural gas deposits.

Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
May 05, 2011 10:50 PM
The Forest Service is nothing but a corporate welfare agency. National Forests are supposed to be part of the public trust, not some free land for miners, ranchers, timber barons, oil/gas companies and commercial ATVers to exploit. The public not only needs to hold the Forest Service accountable but also the politicians that push commercialization of public lands (which by the way many of these companies are contributing huge sums of cash to political campaigns). This is a nationwide problem.