This land is our land – until it’s privatized

 

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 a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is an Elder for ecological issues at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 02:32 PM
Oh, my god. I can't recall reading or hearing anything about this 'privatization' of Mt. Lemmon in Tucson media. I happily paid my $5 to drive Mt. Lemmon highway to the cool pines of Summerhaven and Marshall Gulch, and wondered why the toll booth was shut down. Where are the muck-raking journalists when we need them?
Richard Crow
Richard Crow
Apr 29, 2014 04:41 PM
There is a small lake a few miles from me for picnics, fishing, and walking around that has been privatized for many years. I can't afford to pay the entrance fee for a relaxing 15 minute walk around the lake in the evening. I haven't been there in years. However, the campground "host" takes care of the place and they do a fine job of it. Without them I suspect the area would be closed to everybody because there simply isn't enough money to maintain it without cutting somewhere else. I don't like it but that is the way it is now.
Patrick Donlon
Patrick Donlon
Apr 29, 2014 08:14 PM
When we call something 'public land' we are saying some buraucrat will make decision relative to its use; we can be certain the bureaucrat is not going to make decisions relative to most effective use of the land. We collectively benefit if the land is used for producing food or making natural resources available to heat our homes or to move our traffic. We have the dreamers among us who are the modern-day inhabitants of Waldon Pond who tell us of the beauty of pristine lakes, desert tortoises etc. It is the collectivist fighting free enterprise - I vote for free-enterprise.
Stephen Willis
Stephen Willis
Apr 30, 2014 10:36 AM
No, when we say "public land" we're talking about resources that American taxpayers have invested in for as long as a century or longer, that are targeted by libertarian free market ideologues on behalf of for profit corporations. All in the name of cutting government services through outsourcing and privatization. The "evil bureaucrats" and U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, etc did a pretty damned good job until their directors were politicized and their funding cut by these so-called "free market" radicals who are busy trying to deconstruct civil government for the benefit of corporations. It has nothing to do with free enterprise, and everything to do with introducing the profit motive and taking The Commons. Fortunately people are waking up to these modern snake oil salesmen.
William Petersen
William Petersen Subscriber
Apr 30, 2014 11:11 AM
I understand Greg Lewis' issue regarding use fees that aren't consistent with the idea of public lands but I also understand the need for impact / use fees. Of course, asking Congress to break up the very the 'unhealthy' alliance between the Forest Service and concessionaires that they created in first place will be difficult until you get past those in Congress who believe that the only benefit of 'public lands' is to generate profits for resource extraction and private vendors.

Preserving and protecting open space and public lands for the benefit of all citizens isn't collectivist nor is it a 'waste' as those lands do have intrinsic value and benefits to the public and country. The idea that 'free enterprise' is and should be the only legitimate use of public lands is another way to create publicly funded benefits for a 'rentier' class whereby the profits realized go to a select few while the negatives of resource development are externalized to the whole.

The reason we're at the point of outsourcing public land management for fees (and at costs much higher than if done in house) is because of the notion that the private sector can/could do it better. That budgets for parks & public land maintenance, improvements and staffing have been consistently cut over the last several decades created and exacerbate the perceptions that these government agencies "failed to operate" and thus are 'bad' and need to be replaced by private enterprise. Enterprises that don't necessarily operate better just at higher costs to the taxpaying public because those increased operator costs are profits.

I'm all for impact and user fees for public lands but I think those fees should be collected by the Forest Service and used for the management, maintenance and up-keep of those public lands where the fees are collected and not outsourced.
Maria Lucier
Maria Lucier
May 02, 2014 03:06 PM
While it's no small feat it looks like you'll need to appeal to the Supreme Court as relying on Congress is useless. In Montana, I and many others, used to be incensed when we would be charged to enter a state park. The issue was resolved by a voluntary $4.00 annual fee on your vehicle registration. Why can't something that simple work at the federal level?
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
May 04, 2014 11:45 AM
My name is Warren Meyer and I actually own Recreation Resource Management. For those who are skeptical of private enterprise over public ownership, I likely won't be able to change your mind in a quick comment. But I do have a couple of specific responses to the criticisms in the article, an article written by the way without any apparent effort to contact me for comment.

1. Our opening date at Rose Canyon is set by the US Forest Service (USFS). We have petitioned the USFS to allow us to stay open in the winter since we know there is demand for winter visitation, but to date have not been allowed to do so.
2. We do not have a year-round exclusive -- in other words, when we are closed, the USFS has every right to open the facility on its own to the public. The USFS has chosen not to do so, probably for budget reasons. These recreation areas are very expensive to keep open. This is the false choice offered here. The choice is not between a private employee and the government ranger of yore -- the choice is often between efficient private operation and closure.
3. As to the passes, the USFS collects money to sell all these passes, but refuses to share any of that pass sales revenue with us if we actually provide the services. This is why we cannot accept most of the passes. We are required, and do, give a 50% discount on camping to seniors and the disabled who have Golden Age and Golden Access passes (and the America the Beautiful equivalent). This is not free. We make about 75 cents profit on each night of camping, so a $10 discount for seniors must be paid for by other campers. Campers without these cards pay $3-$4 a night more than they would otherwise to fund the required senior discounts. Without these discounts, our camping rates at Rose Canyon would be $17 rather than $20 a night.
4. We do sell an annual pass of our own for Rose Canyon for $55 allowing unlimited day use all year.
5. Many of the rates we charge at Rose Canyon are well below what other state agencies charge. Slide Rock SP charges $20 a car for summer day use, for example. And, unlike at most government-operated parks, your fee at Rose Canyon covers all the costs of operation -- there is no additional taxpayer subsidy required. We even pay state and local sales and lodging taxes, which the Feds do not. And all of the money we collect at the gate, except for our 3-5% profit, stays in the park for the maintenance and betterment of the park -- it does not go to fund general government obligations.
6. Most Federal and state recreation agencies are facing huge deferred maintenance bills in their parks. Arizona state parks is hundreds of millions of dollars behind on their maintenance. The National Park Service is billions of dollars behind. There is no such deferred maintenance at the parks we operate. There can't be.

We are always interested to hear suggestions about our parks as well as criticisms of our operations. Any readers can contact me directly at warren@camprrm.com
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
May 04, 2014 11:47 AM
By the way, for those who think something has changed, we have operated at Rose Canyon Lake for almost 20 years, so if you have enjoyed the service in the past, nothing has changed.
Warren Meyer
Warren Meyer
May 04, 2014 12:33 PM
I will give you a bit of history. Thirty years ago the USFS recreation program, including places like Rose Canyon, were entirely funded by USFS timber and mineral sales. With increasing environmental concerns about logging and mining, this pool of money dried up.

So the USFS went to Congress and several Presidents (Both R & D, as it turned out) and asked for tax money to fund its recreation program. They have been consistently told "no". The National Park Service, which is the most beloved Federal parks agency, doesn't even get all the money it needs any more. Much of Congress doesn't even think of the USFS as a recreation agency. So instead of funding USFS recreation, Congress gave the USFS fee authority and essentially told it to pay for its on recreation program with use fees.

But USFS and other government agency costs of operations are really high. Any fee users would consider reasonable would not support these high-cost operations. So the USFS began to seek out private companies who could operate the recreation areas and keep fees reasonable.

For those who passionately hate the presence of private operators, merely trying to have the USFS tell private companies to get lost will simply result in the closure of a lot of parks. Without substantially more taxpayer funds dedicated to USFS park operations in their budget, the USFS doesn't have the resources to keep these parks open.

If you doubt this, look to California. California state Parks is, in my mind, the premier state parks agency in the country. But they charge $30 a night for primitive, no hookup camping. And even at this crazy rate, this often only covers half the cost of the park's operations. And the STILL are having to close parks and have a multi-billion dollar deferred maintenance backlog.
Desert Road
Desert Road
May 04, 2014 06:41 PM
You, sir, are the problem.

Why would you think that profiting from something that we all pay for is appropriate? Run cattle north of Las Vegas much?
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
May 04, 2014 09:10 PM
Come on now, be nice, Warren is a guest and all. Besides, I don't doubt anything he says is true, but I'd sure like to help him along in getting his own Golden Eagle Pass and touring the country in retirement. Rather than pointing fingers I think it's us that's the problem.

I googled and it looks to me as if the FS costs us about 6 billion a year. http://www.fs.fed.us/[…]/FY15-FS-Budget-Overview.pdf way it looked to me anyway. I think we spent five times that while congress had a hissy fit shutting down the govt last year.

I don't need my forests and parks to run at a profit, they aren't there to run a profit. Raise taxes, hire people to fill good, secure, jobs with the FS that have benefits. Fund maintenance. All primitive sites should be at no cost to the user, same with lakes, trailheads, parking, whatever. I wouldn't cry to see concessionaires at National Parks take a hike. Why should we have to pay anything to go and use "our" land. Raise taxes, (sorry Warren), especially corporate taxes. Public lands for the public, time to take them back. End of rant.

Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
May 06, 2014 11:05 AM
Thanks, Warren, for your polite detailed responses. I know Rose Canyon from the years I lived in Tucson (1979-1994) and more recent visits. Nice little sanctuary from the lowland desert heat.

When I read this op-ed about the privatization of the campground and day-use area, I shared some of the writer's concerns, because the trend of privatizing public resources, begun during the Reagan administration, is so pervasive now, propelled by knee-jerk anti-government sentiment.

The free-marketeers talk a lot about the problems of government, and not at all about the problems in the private sector (such as, glorification of selfishness and greed, unpunished corruption, pollution that shoves the externalized costs onto society as a whole, incompetent CEOs getting big bonuses etc.).

But you have filled me in on the realities of operating a privatized campground on Forest Service land, and I come away with a more balanced view, not about privatization as a whole, but about the situation you're in. Basically the anti-tax movement (part of the anti-government sentiment) has imposed the situation on you and the rest of us.

I will try to be open-minded in the future, when considering the role of concessionaires on public land.

- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor