21st Century Problems.. Recreation Bucks and Different Solutions-The San Gabriels Otra Vez

Azusa, CA – Sunday, September 23, 2012: As children play, piles of trash including styrofoam plates, food containers, diapers and plastic grocery bags accumulate across the ground, trashing the East Fork of the San Gabriel Valley River in the Angeles National Forest on Sunday, September 23, 2012 in Azusa, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/ For the Los Angeles Times)

I thought it was interesting that on the previous post on the role of concessionaires (here), many of our usual readers did not weigh in. I don’t know what that means.. certainly we will have recreation funding problems, whether or not we do fuel treatments on the national forests and how that debate finally turns out. Maybe we are missing the forest for the trees..;). What do most taxpayers get from the national forests? Water, some wood, some energy, but mostly recreation.

It seems like there are currently two responses to “not enough money”… 1) give it to the Park Service (which gets funding from exactly the same place) or 2) use concessionaires. I would propose another, “design a funding process for the Forest Service that everyone (at least on this blog) can support, and then lobby the heck out of Congress”. For example, what if retirees, the conservation community and AFSEEE all joined together for heavy duty grassroots lobbying?

I would be interested in what you think of my idea, plus what are your ideas?

What triggered this was another article about trashed public land, with the answer (again) being getting the bucks from another pocket of Uncle Sam.

Here’s the link to the LA Times article, and below is an excerpt. The subtitle of the article is:
“Cutbacks leave rangers outnumbered in dealing with car burglaries, drug deals, gold prospectors and rowdy parties along the mountain creek.”

Beautiful and clean may have been an apt description in the past. But it doesn’t fit today. Although water quality monitors say the East Fork is safe to swim in, the vicinity of the swimming hole was fouled by dozens of dirty diapers and, on some rocks midstream, human feces.

“I’ve lost count of the times I’ve pleaded with the Forest Service to get the trash out of the river,” said Mark Yeltsin, manager of the Camp Williams Cafe, the only commercial establishment on the East Fork. “They have a stock answer: ‘Sorry. We don’t have the resources.'”

Tom Contreras, supervisor of the 640,000-acre Angeles National Forest, said a few more rangers and cleanup crews would certainly enhance his ability to enforce laws on the river, but budget restraints have made that all but impossible. “We have one full-time technician assigned to that area — I wish we had more,” Contreras said.

Environmental and community groups say conditions have reached critical mass, not only on the river but across the San Gabriel Mountains. Something needs to change.

“We desperately need a new vision and management plan for the East Fork and the entire range,” said Juanna Torres, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “What we’ve got up there now isn’t working.”

San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of community and environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Friends of the River, is backing a plan that seeks to balance the crush of tourists with conservation. Essentially, it would transform the San Gabriels into a national recreational area co-managed by the National Park Service. The designation would make it eligible for additional federal resources, including law enforcement officers, interpretive signs and trash collection.

The National Park Service is completing a study of the proposal for submission to Congress and possible authorization next year.

What, there is need for law enforcement, but it needs to be “designated” before the funds will be available? I think something smells funny, but it isn’t the piles on the rocks, it’s something about the current budget process.

11 thoughts on “21st Century Problems.. Recreation Bucks and Different Solutions-The San Gabriels Otra Vez”

  1. Many agencies use volunteers to help with similar issues. However, doing so often results in a further entrenchment of the rationale that agencies can afford to continue or suffer greater budgetary cuts.
    Resolving the systemic issue (via Sharon’s lobbying recommendation) is better than applying uncertain band-aids symptomatically (e.g., using volunteer labor).

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  2. The fallacy here is that the proposed designation of existing national forest land as a new NRA is merely another example of trying to rob Peter to pay Paul. Congress does not automatically increase the funding to the NPS or USDA FS because of any additional National Recreation Area or other designations. It is more like a zero sum game where the House Appropriations committee has a set amount for all Interior and related agencies (of which FS in one) and has to distribute between NPS, FWS, EPA, USFS BIA, BLM etc.

    With a few notable exceptions (Mt St Helens and Land between the Lakes for example) the days of additional line item appropriations are mostly behind us. Congress itself has put severe limits on line item appropriations for the last three or four years. So the net result, is that additional funding for a newly designated NRA is more likely to come at the expense of the more general agency funding (recreation, law enforcement BLIs etc).

    And assuming a zero sum game is optimistic given possibility of sequestration, and other overall reductions in agency appropriations in out years.

    As to earlier comments on privatization of recreation facilities and services on NFS, this has its genesis in the old rules where general recreation fees collected by the FS were by law returned to the US Treasury and were not available for agency use in maintenance of recreation sites. Use of concessionaires allowed some of the funds collected to be used on the forest. Then came the recreation fee demo program where Congress allowed FS to keep rec funds from developed sites to help maintain and manage these sites. As receipts from the Rec Fee program increased, however, appropriated recreation funds reaching the ground either stayed flat or declined. Today some forests actually collect more in the Rec Fee program than they get in annual appropriations.

    Human nature being what it is , local managers looked for opportunities to charge more recreation fees and there were too many “creative interpretations” for what types of enhanced recreation services could be charged for under the guidelines provided by Congress. Based on public outcry, lawsuits,Congressional oversight and Washington Office and regional Office reviews of this program, the worst of these “creative interpretations” have been rescinded. There still exist, however a number of places on individual forests where the line remains blurred and controversial between “enhanced recreation services” (where fees can be charged) and more traditional dispersed recreation opportunities which should be provided free of charge.

    I can relate one example this summer when our family traveled out west and happily paid fees at FS campgrounds, both agency run and operated by concessionaires. At the same time, one one forest (which shall go nameless), we went along one general Forest gravel road going up into the mountains, lightly used, where about every half mile there was stream side parking and once in a while a SST (sweet smelling toilet). This road was heavily signed saying that a day use fee was required at any of these roadside pull offs. To me this was an example of a “creative interpretation’ put in place to generate money that , in my mind at least ,clearly went far beyond Congressional intent and which I found personally offensive.

    What is the answer? Certainly there are no easy answers left in a federal budget climate where annual deficits have approached one trillion dollars a year .

    At its most basic level, having the agency providing the mix of goods and services that the public most wants from its national forest lands will in the long run ensure continuing public support for agency funding. In the last ten years, if I remember correctly, the Forest Service has actually done reasonably well in terms of overall funding relative to the NPS, BLM, and other federal land management agencies.

    Then charging reasonable fees for only those developed recreation facilities where there is broad public support will help prevent the kinds of lawsuits and public sentiment backlash we have seen from some of the “creative interpretations” of fees for enhanced recreation services we have all read about.

    Judicious use of concessionaires also belongs in the mix but this has to be done in a way that resists subtle pressures that inadvertently “commercialize what the national Forests offer. ( I am reminded of an abortive effort in the late 1980s to invite Disneyland to come in and help develop the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area so it could be more financially sustainable). Recent FS recreation planning efforts to have each national forest identify its recreation niche(compared to what is available on private lands) may help to head off too much commercialization of the forest resource. If I had to fault this process, however, it is that this “recreation realignment:” effort done forest by forest too often did not have enough dialogue with forest users to help define each forest’s recreation niche.

    At last but not least, collaboration and partnerships is yielding additional fruit. This is particularly important where declining agency budgets are forcing a hard look at what recreation facilities and trails are sustainable and which are not. Out of these candid discussions come not only creative solutions (to perhaps maintain more sites with volunteer and partner help) but also broader public support for Congress to fund what the national forests offer to the public.

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    • Terry, I agree that the Forest Service should attempt to be somewhat consistent about how it interprets regulations (one of the cultural norms that may not fit as well in the 21st internet-linked century is that of individual units being “unduly” (and it’s all about that judgment call, isn’t is?) creative.)

      Even if there is broad support (as with a timber sale), people can still file lawsuits. Most people did not complain about Mt. Evans. There is a beautiful place with a road, they get charged, and it is not unexpected, because they would get charged to drive a road through Rocky Mountain National Park with similar scenery. Or even to see the Maroon Bells. If there were broad public lack of support, we probably would have heard a lot more.

      I agree that recreation program management sometimes does not involve the public as much as say a fuels treatment project. One reason I think is because they are usually framed as “we need to reduce facilities so we can afford them, let’s decide.” Which is a different conversation from “how can we nationally and locally support the level of facilities that we feel we need?” This is really a national question IMHO and need to be discussed by a broad group (FACA committee) with all recreation interests represented.

      How much does the FS get?
      How do they spend it?
      What do we want the role of concessionaires, permittees, contractors and volunteers to be?
      Compare to BLM and Park Service- do they get more support, have better management, best practices?.
      And since law enforcement tends to be a part of recreation, how is that working for the FS how is it funded, and how does that compare to BLM and NPS?
      How is FS recreation integrated with local and state recreation and law enforcement, and is that different than BLM and NPS?

      Maybe there already is some kind of study like this but I haven’t seen it. any recreation experts out there who would like to weigh in?

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  3. San Gabriel is under the Adventure Pass fee program, which has been in place there since 1997. There are about 300,000 Adventure Passes sold a year. The Forest Service has authority to keep all of that revenue and is supposed to be spending it to improve the places where the Pass is required. Imagine if instead of using their resources to write 40,000 notices of non-payment of fees per year (which they do), they wrote 40,000 tickets for littering!
    Sorry, I don’t buy the “we don’t have resources” argument.

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  4. Kitty, I think we could find forest and district budgets that don’t have enough in them to hire people to take care of campgrounds…
    What would you need to see to agree that resources are limiting?

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    • If a concessionaire can charge fees at a campground that are sufficient to hire staff and still make a profit, why can’t the Forest do the same? And they don’t even have to make a profit, so theoretically the camping fee could be less than a concessionaire would charge.

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      • Kitty, I think that’s a great question and honestly I don’t know the answer. I hope someone else does.

        My first thought would be it takes more money to hire people and get their transportation than in the private sector, due to the variety of rules and other red tape that has to be done.

        However, not sure that applies to contractors. I wonder if we could examine a business plan of a concessionaire in some detail, seems like it might be FOIAble in the middle of the period.. not when there’s a competition going on.

        Others, please help, I’m struggling a bit here

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  5. I think this last exchange between Sharon and Kitty is quite interesting. Like Sharon, I don’t know the specifics, but my sense s that Sharon is correct in her speculation as to why the concessionaire can run run a campground more efficiently than the FS, although the assessment of overall costs for running the campground ought to additionally include the cost of administering the contract. The fact is that whenever we are talking about doing something on behalf of the “public good”, there will always be additional costs associated with ensuring that the “public good” is actually being served. In the private sector, companies need not be concerned with whether they are serving the public good (unless it helps the bottom line).

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  6. I think is is important not to paint all concessionaire campgrounds with one broad brush. Here in the southeast, for example, seventeen FS campgrounds are being managed by the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association, The “CFAIA” “is a 501c3 non-profit organization that strives to help the public better understand local ecology and the benefits of conservation through education and recreation. CFAIA’s mission is to promote educational, recreational and interpretive opportunities about forest and water resources, natural history, and the Cradle of Forestry in America. The CFAIA works to support our mission of recreation and education through campground and recreation area management, environmental education opportunities, the sale of forest-related gifts and educational materials and by providing support to the Cradle of Forestry Historic Site.”

    CFAIA has done much to promote conservation education and works closely with FS to provide quality interpretive services at FS campgrounds and at the FS Cradle of Forestry Historic Site. This non profit has engaged in fund raising activities and production of interpretive materials and curricula that the FS could not have done on its own. Check out the following two websites and judge for yourself.

    http://cfaia.org/index.php
    http://www.cradleofforestry.com/site/

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  7. PS I am a retired USFS employee and an not affiliated in any way with CFAIA. I mention this in case anyone thought the previous post was an example of shameless self promotion:)

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  8. That’s a good point, Terry.

    I see a gradation.. employees doing the work employees managing
    contractors doing the work, employees managing
    we could also imagine volunteers doing the work and managing, if anyone would volunteer to do that.
    There are also the wonderful campground hosts who sometimes are paid and sometimes volunteer (and sometimes may not be wonderful but I haven’t met those)
    concessionaires/ not for profits doing the work and managing

    PS I have visited Cradle of Forestry and remember the kindness of the people there to me and my husband, including loaning out a wheelchair..when we decided we wanted to go on the trails. I didn’t know they managed campgrounds!. Thanks, Terry.

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