Thousands of National Forest recreation sites may be closed or privatized in the next few years, since they don't pull their financial weight, according to the Durango, Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (Kitty Benzar, 970-259-4616; news page).
The Coalition predicts that the closures will result from US Forest Service's Recreation Site Facility Master Planning process, which until recently has had a very low public profile. The process has been underway since at least 2002, and implementation of the plans is scheduled to begin in all 155 National Forests and 20 grasslands no later than Dec. 31, 2007. At least 17 forests have already completed their plans, with little or no public review (Bridger-Teton, Dixie, Ashley, Sawtooth, Fishlake, Wasatch-Cache, Salmon-Challis, Caribou-Targhee, Chugach, Tongass, Shoshone, and Medicine Bow-Routt among them). In addition, a few have already begun closing recreation sites or cutting back their facilities.
Following limited media coverage about the Coalition's August 2006 report, which charged the USFS with drawing up the plans in secret, USFS Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop directed all forest and grassland managers in October to make the process more public. He anticipates that formal public meetings and comment periods will occur in coming months, both for the completed plans and those in process. He also says NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review processes could occur for selected sites, but he doesn't anticipate any cumulative effects assessments. If that holds, such a limited implementation of NEPA would be far short of what the Coalition and other critics, including at least one former employee, say is needed for such significant actions.
The USFS says it is conducting the RSFMP process to ensure that recreation sites meet the agency's health and safety standards and are financially sustainable. Under current conditions, the agency says it can't cope with the combined effects of maintenance backlogs, increasing and changing visitor expectations, new federal health standards for drinking water quality, and a decreasing budget. A rough outline of the agency's process can be gleaned from documents available here; Christie Achenbach, 202-205-0914.
To make financial ends meet, the agency is generally anticipating that the recreation sites most vulnerable to change will be the small, remote facilities that are used by about two-thirds of its visitors. Potential actions include steps such as closures; removing some facilities, such as water supplies or toilets; charging or increasing fees; finding volunteers to run and maintain sites; or turning them over to private concessionaires.
The early results from a few forest plans that the Coalition and others have acquired indicate the potential for major cutbacks and increased fees and privatization. In Oregon's Deschutes NF, only 14 of the existing 212 sites would remain open and free; 23 others would be closed; 18 would become fee areas; 8 would be turned over to concessionaires; and the existing 94 fee sites and 83 concessionaire-operated sites would continue as is. Additional details.
Elsewhere in Oregon, the Willamette NF is following a roughly similar pattern, Benzar says. In Colorado's Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison NFs, about 100 of the 138 sites would be either closed or privatized.
Overall, the Coalition calculates that anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 recreation sites will be closed, and another 4,000 will either be privatized or have user fees imposed. Holtrop could not provide an agency estimate, saying that the process is ongoing, and that the upcoming public participation may change the numbers.
The agency effort is largely based on its assertion that it doesn't have enough money to take care of its existing sites. However, although the budget numbers are very difficult to obtain, the Coalition and others calculate that the agency is spending just a tiny fraction of the budget Congress appropriated for these operations, even assuming a very high overhead for management costs.
The conclusion of critics is that the preference for closures and privatization is due to Bush administration policy directives, not budget demands. To find out more, critics are calling for Congressional involvement and an independent audit of the USFS books.
In a related development, a Government Accountability Office report issued September 22, 2006, found that the agencies in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture that are implementing fee programs for recreation sites have stockpiled a kitty of $300 million that they haven't decided where to spend, and that many facets of the fee programs remain muddled, and poorly implemented and audited.