“Note to concessionaires: You don’t own the land” from HCN

Thanks to Kitty Benzar for finding this..in High Country News.
Here’s a link. Below is an excerpt.

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.

A couple of thoughts. First, I don’t like the idea of concessionaires from a fundamental perspective, as it removes agency employees from a direct relationship with the public. Like I’ve said before on this blog, it’s like the pastor contracting out personal visits to her flock. Second, some of them whom I’ve observed have an unprofessional attitude (that’s a separable problem, but still..). At the same time, I have seen FS budgets and people don’t usually volunteer to clean campgrounds.. bucks have to come from somewhere. Further, when there is no money and you tell people in NFMA planning that recreation must be sustainable, it seems like a problem. So while I acknowledge the problem, I have a number of difficulties with concessionaires being the answer.

Nevertheless, when the author says “That is hardly the case, since the companies operating concessions on public land keep money that would otherwise go to the Forest Service.” But to me the question is whether the FS would be making money with these sites. Could you also say “they spend money that would otherwise be spent by the Forest Service?”

I would like to hear more about this from those knowledgeable:

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.

If ski areas remained open, I think the operators do have a legitimate question as to why they didn’t (as do timber operators). It seems, to this observer, it was a function of political clout. The lawsuit was an effort to put them on the “those with clout” list. I see that as pretty understandable.

4 Comments

  1. I manage a concessionaire permit for the Forest Service, so I know a little about how these things actually work. I will be the first to say that in a perfect world, the Forest Service wouldn’t need to look to private businesses to operate FS owned campgrounds. But, in a perfect world, Congress (and the American Public) would also support the FS with sufficient funds to operate and maintain them on our own. This is not the world we live in. In fact, with the effects of sequestration this past year, it was good to know that these impacts would not affect our most popular campgrounds since they were operated by concessionaires since, in truth, they “do not take one dime of government money.” (Sure, if we operated the campgrounds, the FS would get to keep the revenues, much to Kitty’s chagrin; and any how, since we’ve been in a moratorium on new/increased fees for the last 4 years, the fees would be too low to cover costs).

    The author doesn’t quite have it right with the fee to government that permittees are required to pay. It’s not about savvy business(wo)men figuring out loopholes; we (the Forest Service) do not want them to pay the fee since it goes straight to treasury. Instead, they are required to invest that same amount into capital projects in the campgrounds in lieu of the fee, dollar for dollar (minus overhead). This is not an insignificant amount of money; for many permits, this can be in 6 figures.

    About the passes, well, the author is partially right. Concessionaires are required to honor the senior and access passes, which give those visitors 50% of a site (same as FS). Where the author got it right is that concessionaires do not have to honor the passes at day use sites that they operate. From what I hear, in the efforts to reauthorize the Recreation Enhancement Act, one change will allow the FS to require concessionaires to honor all FS passes. I hope that is the case.

    And to Sharon’s point about unprofessional behavior from concessionaires… well, we have the same issues with FS employees at times. One difference is that concessionaires can (and do) fire/lay off anyone not providing the level of customer service that they expect immediately; the FS, on the other hand, has a much harder time making personnel moves like this… I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

    • Interesting that this piece showed up in the Denver Post in the Sunday Perspective section. I will post a link to this discussion there when I finish figuring out how to sign up.

      Thanks, Rec Guy, for telling us the background. I had a feeling it was more complex than she described, but op-eds are a bit of a “drive-by” when it comes to policy. Which is OK but I don’t know why it is so common to have a snarky tone; I guess it’s more entertaining.

      As a good discussion does, your point made me reflect and be clearer on what I mean. I am in the situation of fairly frequently running through a concessionaire facility fairly close to a national park. The contrast is not good for the Forest Service, IMHO.

      First, it’s not so much the professional behavior of any employee, it just seems that it is less professional. For example, I went to the same place a couple of days in a row, and different folks were very slow checking people in, and had different ideas about whether they accept Park passes or not. Another time the site was full and cars were stopped along the entry road so that you came around a blind corner and ran into stopped cars (needed someone out there to alert people?). On the signs at the very busy trailheads, it is hard to distinguish that it is even a FS site. As I posted once before, the main place you see the FS is Woodsy Owl in the outhouse.

      If I were a recreationist, compared to the Parkie place, it is hard to see why you would support the national forests. First, you read snarky things about the FS in the press. Then, at most of the sites with large numbers of people seeing them, the FS ownership is so quiet I doubt if most people will see it. Meanwhile, the National Park Foundation is advertised on TV in this season where part of your holiday dollar can go.

      Anyway, I think one helpful thing would be to review them and make sure that somewhere obvious is a sign of who is managing the facility and that you can contact x with the concessionaire and y at the FS to report issues.

      Finally, I have to say that there are belief systems that say “you are returned what you put out” and I probably don’t give good vibes to concessionaires based on my views, above, and past experiences. I don’t know if I believe in that entirely, but next time I will do a clearing and have positive thoughts about concessionaires before I go to the site.

  2. I did some google fu on Ms. Cole and she seems unhappy about a lot of things that intrude into her vision of what a perfect Sedona/Forest Service/West would be like.
    Concessionaires would probably not be needed had the Forest Service list of services been so gutted post Spotted Fowl. I’m one of those fully aware of, and secretly grateful for, the awesome low-budget, no frills recreational infrastructure that was available. WAS available, mind you.

  3. “Further, when there is no money and you tell people in NFMA planning that recreation must be sustainable, it seems like a problem.”

    I don’t think that the planning rule requirements for ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable recreation’ include ‘fiscal’ sustainability. Who knows what that might be. (See the definitions of those terms in 36 CFR 219.19.)

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