Lawsuit, Day Use Fees and Campgrounds

National Park Service Long’s Peak Trailhead, just up the road from concessionaire managed Brainerd Lakes.

I looked for Forest Service “presence” at Brainerd that day (several years ago) and this is all I found, in not the most scenic spot..

At least Hooty made it to this site.

Oh, but this is why people actually go there.. some might argue that a site this beautiful should be acquired by the Park Service, who would end up’s all very complex. So this is a fairly unique post in that I don’t know as much about this topic as I do others.. so hoping others from the recreation world can help. If you are in the Forest Service and you know something that you think would help the discussion, please do, you can make up an alias in yahoo or google if you don’t want to use your name.

Off one of the trails from Brainerd Lakes.

Several years ago, I was intending to write a post for this blog, called “A Tale of Two Trailheads” comparing the management of Brainerd Lakes (concessionaire) and Long’s Peak (Park Service); never did, but here are the photos and the below article reminded me of it. Let’s just reflect on the two trailheads while we read the article.

The Denver Post had this article in the business section today, but I found it fairly confusing. Maybe some readers can help.

The first sentence is:

“A U.S. Forest Service push to privatize management of campgrounds is prompting a backlash from critics who oppose concessionaires charging day-use fees to access federal lands.”

Because before I retired we had the Mt. Evans case, which was about what I’ll call the “what for” question (WhatFor) “what services can you charge for?”, I thought that that was a separate question from “should concessionaires be allowed to run campgrounds?”, the concessionaire campgrounds (or ConCamp) question.

Why do we have to pay to go into public lands? The land belongs to the people, and the people should be able to use the land for free,” said 64-year-old Wimert, who began decrying day-access fees when he was charged entrance to pedal into Brainard Lake Recreation Area two years ago.

Somehow the Forest Service has lost its way. They are no longer caring for the land and serving the people. They are serving themselves,” he said.

Let’s compare Brainerd to Longs. Do we say if the Park Service charges to access Long’s, they have “lost their way” and are “serving themselves?”. No we’d probably say we are paying for the quality facilities they have there.

I don’t think the Forest Service is “serving themselves”. They didn’t have enough money to run these places, so partnerships seemed like 1) a way to provide public service 2) within the budget. Like everything, this had the unintended consequence of empowering a small vocal group to become active politically to get more goodies.

Now. one of my previous bosses would say something like “campgrounds are a chance for us to touch the public, to be there in uniform, to help members of the public be outdoors. Nothing can be more important than us to be there for them. The Park Service “gets it”, we need to “get it” also.” Even though he had a lot of passion and desire, and about as much power as someone is likely to get in the Forest Service, in my opinion, he couldn’t do anything because the bucks aren’t there (and now there is an entrenched political group supporting it). If you, as I do, think that this is important, I wish we could all work together to do something.. agitate for a separate budget line item for campgrounds, or ???

“The Forest Service is allowed under current federal law to keep all the money they bring in from a campground, so there are no efficiencies gained by contracting a private company,” she said.
In Colorado, seven national forests covering 14.5 million acres include 1,268 non-fee sites and 540 fee areas with 469 recreation sites operated by concessionaires. Nationally, half of all Forest Service camping sites — 82 percent of the reservable camping sites available under the National Recreation Reservation Service — are managed by concessionaires. Thirty years ago, the Forest Service primarily operated its own lands.
Concessionaire operations are a big money business. According to the Forest Service, a small campground concession with one to three developed sites can produce revenue ranging from $50,000 to $105,000. A larger campground with 10 to 12 sites can generate more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Total campground concessionaire revenue nationally is estimated at $35 million.

My understanding is something along the lines of “there is no money to hire someone to empty the toilets and do maintenance, and campground fees alone can’t pay for those people.”

Therefore, concessionaires seem like a good idea because it’s that or shutting them down. And of course concessionaires only want the best ones, so that leaves the Forest Service with the less popular ones that have fewer visitors. And of course, the FS has lots of rules and regulations and hiring and pay requirements, which maybe the concessionaires don’t have to follow, which I assume (???) is how they can make a profit.
The funds going back to the Forest don’t help if it’s a net loss.

The increasing use of private concessionaires is riling some users just as a national program aimed at boosting private investment in federal recreation sites gains momentum. The Washington D.C.-based American Recreation Coalition soon will unveil a dozen pilot programs — at least one of which is in Colorado — that would forge public-private partnerships allowing for-profit concessionaires to invest in upgrades like on-site storage of boats at marinas and improved facilities at campgrounds.

I think all of us really need to look at this cautiously, but this is about ConCamp, it seems like, not what the lawsuit was about which is about WhatFor. It seems to me that NEPA provides for good discussion of projects, but not so much programs like this. I wonder what sort of public involvement has been done with broader topics like the role of concessionaires?

The lawsuit argues that the Forest Service’s permitted concessionaires charge fees “even when visitors do not use any facilities or services of the area, but simply wish to enter Forest Service lands to engage in undeveloped recreation.” The lawsuit also contends that issuing special permits without public involvement to concessionaires who charge fees does not meet the federal requirement for public notice of pricing changes.

In 2009, the Forest Service proposed cutting the camping fee discount for interagency passes like the Golden Age and Senior passes from 50 percent to 10 percent, citing concessionaire concerns over lost revenue. In 2010, the agency scuttled the reduced discount proposal. Still, concessionaires don’t have to accept the passes.

The first paragraph seems to me like it’s about the WhatFor question but whether concessionaires need to follow the same rules the FS does? The second paragraph seems to be about ConCamp- I don’t see why concessionaires wouldn’t have to follow the rules. After all, following the rules is one part of why it’s expensive for the FS to run them in the first place.

Finally, Derrick Crandall is quoted as saying:

“We are trying to broaden the use of public lands,” said coalition president Derrick Crandall, pointing to stagnant visitation to Forest Service campgrounds when compared to private campgrounds. “We are looking at ways to bring these worn-out, outmoded facilities up to levels we expect at ski areas. We really see this initiative as a win-win for everyone.

Now the other thing I’ve noticed about say, parts of the Med-bow and the Bighorn, is that few people are camped at the campgrounds, but many, many people are dispersed camping throughout the forest. First, you have to pay money, second you have to follow rules, third you are right next door to your neighbors, fourth you can’t make up configurations of RV’s, horse trailers and tents that fit your friends and family. I have been on different parts of both of these forests at times when all the likely dispersed camping spots have been filled and the campground is relatively empty. It seems that in spots (at least where I’ve seen a lot of dispersed camping), people don’t want FS campgrounds not because they’re not nice enough (State Parks, Park Service and KOA) but because they are too “nice.”

If the FS charged $10 a head for dispersed camping per season during deer and elk season (livestock and people) there might be enough that we wouldn’t need concessionaires. I wonder if we need a recreation policy FACA committee in DC?

Anyway, this is all very confusing to me, and I know we’ve had good discussion about this on this blog in the past, hoping we can do so again.

10 thoughts on “Lawsuit, Day Use Fees and Campgrounds”

  1. I am very familiar with this issue so let me clarify some of the things that were unclear in the article. First, a bit of history. Using concessionaires to run campgrounds made some sense under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (pre-Fee Demo in 1996) because the revenue was returned to the general fund, less 15% for admin. Hiring a concessionaire allowed all the revenue to stay at the site to cover operations. Fee Demo and its successor FLREA changed that to allow the FS to keep the revenue and use it on site. That should have eliminated the incentive to use concessionaires and some managers in fact moved in that direction. They were slapped down hard from above in a memo from Chief Dombeck (FS_Dombeck Concessioner Protection memo) making it very clear that the FS was committed to keeping their “partners” the concessionaires in business and profitable and that moving any facilities from concession management into the Fee Demo program was not allowed. In one of the Fee Demo renewals the concessionaire industry even got language inserted making it illegal for the FS to take a facility out of concessionaire management unless nobody bid on it. (That’s no longer the case under FLREA but the agency acts as if it is.)

    Thus the use of concessionaires is not for reasons of efficiency or cost saving, it’s an ideological choice driven by the concession industry and its lobbying arm, the American Recreation Coalition, to further their long-range goal of privatizing all public land recreation. Since the FS got authority to retain rec fees the concession program has expanded, when all logic would say it should have shrunk.

    Despite that, concession management was not very controversial until lately because it was confined to campgrounds, and campground fees are well accepted. If the FS wants to hire a contractor to clean the toilets and haul the trash, that’s within their scope as recreation managers to decide. But it goes far beyond that. The controversy has heated up, and now graduated into litigation, because the concessionaires are expanding far beyond just running campgrounds. They are charging day use fees in places that have never been through the public process required in FLREA for new fee sites. They are charging solely for parking, which is prohibited in FLREA. They are charging for general access to dispersed areas, also prohibited. They are refusing to accept federal passes for day use that the FS is required to accept, and are being allowed to issue their own private passes for access to the federal lands they control. In 2009-2010 they tried to get the senior/disabled camping discount reduced from 50% to 10% because it was hurting profits. (That failed due to the energetic opposition of senior and disabled citizens who objected loud and long.)

    I have been raising alarms with FS in Washington and with Congress for several years, to no avail. The FS says rec fees charged by private companies are not rec fees, they are private revenue and thus not subject to the same restrictions and requirements as FS revenue. But they use the same terminology to describe concessionaire fees as for their own rec fees (Standard Amenity Fee; Expanded Amenity Fee). Their standard concession prospectus, as well as the FS Manual, say that concessionaires can only charge fees to the extent the FS could charge, but then they proceed to allow it anyway.

    If this is interpretation is allowed to stand, the FS can evade any law Congress chooses to pass limiting recreation fees, merely by transferring facilities out of federal control and into private hands. It’s Privatization, pure and simple. (See the website The objective of the litigation is to establish whether federal law applies on all federal land or not.

    The concessionaires, having largely become the tail that wags the FS dog, are trying to expand and consolidate their power even more. They are in closed-door meetings with Undersecretary Harris Sherman and Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon, asking to be allowed to spend private funds to “modernize” campgrounds and marinas with things like on-site rv, ohv, and boat storage yards and wi-fi in campgrounds. In return for this private investment (in which they would accrue private property rights), they want longer permit terms (30 years vs the current 5 years) and the ability to transfer permits on the private market without FS approval.

    If this is not stopped, the FS will soon be out of the recreation management business altogether. Recreation managers should be grateful to the citizens who are taking this to court. Under current policy, recreation techs will soon find themselves working for concessionaires, at minimum wage, operating amusement parks on federal land.

    • Thanks for your comments, Kitty, that helped explain what is about campgrounds and what is about charging for access, and about whether concessionaires have to follow the same regulations. It’s still pretty confusing to a neophyte, though.

      In the Dombeck letter I noted a couple of statements..

      Another strategy is to encourage an expanding role for the private sector in delivering services in national forest settings. Use of concessions is a key tool for providing quality services with declining work forces and capital resources. In addition to providing benefits and services to our customers, concessions also directly contribute to ecosystem protection and enhancements while promoting economic strength and stability in the communities we serve.

      My question about that would be “why are concessionaires better than contractors in “expanding the role of the private sector”? It seems to me that in Colorado, we have plenty of private sector- we have partnerships with Denver Water, we have ski areas, we have oil and gas much do we need?


      “At the same time, both Congress and the Administration have identified the need to reduce the size and scope of Government. How we manage the national forests has shifted. We must effectively utilize our employees as program administrators and adjust to leaner Government. “

      First, I wonder if since 97 it has not become clearer that contracting out might be ideologically better, but might not actually save money as much as originally thought. ARRA for example, was working through others but spent a lot of federal bucks. So why concessionaires and not contractors?

      Finally, the letter doesn’t sound like traditional thinking of the political party then in power. I wonder if there were some pressure applied by Congress?

      Hopefully someone from the FS side might know this history…

  2. “Finally, the letter doesn’t sound like traditional thinking of the political party then in power.”

    Fee Demo and FLREA have never been the property of either political party. People on both sides of the aisle have supported access fees, people on both sides have opposed them. Clinton, GW Bush, and Obama all share blame. True, Fee Demo was sponsored by a Republican (Ralph Regula, OH) but it has been continued and expanded by both Rs and Ds in Congress.

  3. Thanks for your excellent overview Kitty. It provides a snapshot of our existing predicament which is worth providing context — as causation of predicament — especially in terms of the neoliberal agenda, which includes defunding government, privatization, corporate outsourcing of governmental functions, and deregulation.

    Our present national predicament is best encapsulated by Grover Norquist’s famous quote, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” He was representing the National Chamber of Commerce.

    ‘Norquist is best known for founding Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) in 1985, which he says was done at the request of then-President Ronald Reagan. Referring to Norquist’s activities as head of ATR, Steve Kroft, in a 60 Minutes episode that aired on November 20, 2011, claimed that “Norquist has been responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican Party.”(wiki)

    Norquist et al, have doggedly pursued the goal of: “Starving the beast” … a political strategy employed by American conservatives in order to limit government spending by cutting taxes in order to deprive the government of revenue in a deliberate effort to force the federal government to reduce spending.

    (this is worth emphasizing):
    “The short and medium term effect of the strategy has INCREASED United States public debt rather than reduced spending.” (wiki)

    This helps explain the persistent state of agency capture — a principle component of agency capture, and the privatization dilemma. The defunding of government — especially land management and regulatory agencies, sets the neoliberal stage for privatization and the defunding of basic services normally expected from any civilized government.

    Set up in place of adequate funding streams to agencies, are the National Forest Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Park Foundation, etc. which employ “corporate partners” to achieve the privatization ends so well documented in Kitty’s comment.

    In response to Sharon’s comment,

    “Finally, the letter doesn’t sound like traditional thinking of the political party then in power. I wonder if there were some pressure applied by Congress?”

    I would note, there is no meaningful difference in our political party system because both parties embrace the neoliberal agenda founded upon free market fundamentalism — and that is precisely how best to explain our present national predicament.

    Concessionaire strategy is but one of many symptoms of our terminal national disease.

  4. Sharon, you claim that the first sentence of the Post story is confusing, but it is the Forest Service that created the confusion by blurring the lines between public and private. It is, in fact, a creeping privatization of public lands. As you know, I always like to use a local example (like you did above). There are two day use areas that are adjacent to campgrounds in Summit County, Pine Cove and Heaton Bay. There is absolutely no reason I should have to pay $5 to park there for a half hour and walk my dogs — especially since I’m just crossing NF land to reach Denver Water land. And it’s especially galling that the money goes to the pockets of a large recreation corporation.

    For all your complex deconstruction of this issue, it’s really as simple as that, and most of the public, if it had a chance to see this issue clearly, rather through a blur of Forest Service smoke and mirrors, would agree.

    We don’t want to pay to park and hike!

    • But we do.. for example, I have the Jeffco open space in back of my house which is free. If it gets hot, I go to White Ranch (Jeffco Open Space) which is free. BUT if it gets TOO hot I have to progress up the mountain to Golden Gate State Park which is $7 or I could get an annual pass. I don’t like to pay, but I don’t think that there any philosophical reason that the State Park shouldn’t make me pay.

      Now I think you might be on to something about the “corporation” aspect. Golden Gate is obviously run by state employees who are trying to make ends meet between taking care of people and what they get in the state budget.

      I know in my gut I don’t like the concessionaire aspect. I know that timber companies (where they exist) make money. I know that outfitter-guides make money off recreation, and being the interface between you and the National Forest. I know ski areas are large corporations (or at least the ones around here) and they are the interface with visitors and this system seems to work fine.

      So if you asked me rationally I would not see a reason not to do it. But I still don’t like it.

      Since we got into managing by costs, we don’t have a way to talk about the soul of the organization. I think that’s one of the reasons for poor morale.

      So let me approach this from the soul perspective. The taxpayers fund the Forest Service and the National Forests are the property of the citizens of the US. MOST of the owners interact with public lands by recreating. Presence, to me, is the most important and soul-filled way of saying “I value you”. What could be more important?

  5. FYI, it was George W.Bush that wanted to privatize the Forest Service and the Park Service which if you truly would have done research caused a huge funding cut for those two agencies. I was an archaeologist for both agencies and will tell you that paying a fee for use is the least of the problems. There are no archaeology jobs for those agencies now, no biology jobs, no money for crews to to any necessary survey or work. But of course the irony is that those jobs did not become privatized, they are just gone and there is no money to have anyone do them. So trust me, having to pay a fee for use is the least of our countries problems concerning federal lands. It would be nice to see more articles on those of us who lost our careers due to this ill fated plan and what the consequences will be

    • Kim, not sure that it was GW that started that idea.. I think it was perhaps pre-Clinton.

      The privatization blog here says..

      Privatization Blog focuses on the outsourcing of government functions to private entities, usually through a contract. Always touted as a dramatic cost-savings measure, very often taxpayers end up paying more than they paid when the government performed the work in-house with public servants. Support for privatization is bipartisan – it was a featured component of President Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” initiatives, and was an even bigger part of President Bush’s policy, both domestic and foreign. In recent years, the scale of privatization has reached epic proportions, far more than most Americans realize – and the downsides are far more common, and more disastrous, than most people realize as well.

      Maybe Kitty knows more about the history…

      You are welcome to author a post … send it to me at We are interested in a variety of perspectives.

      • “Maybe Kitty knows more about the history…”

        Sharon you pretty much nailed it. Fee Demo, for example, was enacted in 1996 as part of Al Gore’s “reinventing government” initiative.Privatization is part of a radical libertarian philosophy, which does not recognize the concept of “public good” except as it relates to national defense. Everything else should be user-pay. The typical defense is along the lines of “Why should my aging grandmother in New Jersey pay to support National Forests that she will likely never visit?” Taken to its extreme, this approach would eliminate public lands as we know them, not to mention public libraries, fire and police departments, federal disaster response, free interstate highways, and more. Not a pretty world picture.
        To hear the arguments from the pro-privatization perspective I recommend
        And check out how privatizing parking meters worked out for Chicago (New York may follow the same path):


Leave a Comment