Guest Post by Kitty Benzar on National Forest Concessionaires and Privatization

Whitney Portal Campground, California, managed by Recreation Resource Management.

Thank you to Kitty Benzar for this guest post.

Here are three examples of concessionaire operating plans. All of these are included in the lawsuit filed on Sept 11. They include day use fee sites that have never been vetted through any public process, as well as types of fees that FLREA prohibits the Forest Service from charging, such as for simply passing through a developed area without using the facilities.

I get more calls and emails from people about concessionaire issues than any other topic. There is a lot of pent-up anger out there about concessionaires being allowed to operate under different rules than the federal agencies have to follow. People have been told by concessionaire employees that they are trespassing – on National Forest land! – just for walking through a developed area to get to a trailhead or the bank of a river or lake. There are frequent stories of concessionaire employees being rude, aggressive, and drunk on the job. Concessionaire sites are frequently reported to be trashy and run down. I’m sure there are concessions that are better run than others, but this is what I’m hearing. If the FS was simply hiring private contractors to haul the trash or maintain the toilets I don’t think there would be a problem with that. But instead they are leasing facilities to private operators and then walking away.

Since the news stories about the concessionaire lawsuit started appearing I have been buried in “attagirl” emails and phone calls. The overall message has been “It’s about time somebody did something about this!”

The FS relationship with the concessionaire industry is way too cozy. There have been at least two closed-door meetings this summer between Undersecretary Sherman and the American Recreation Coalition about the ARC’s proposal for drastic expansion of the concessionaire system. Deputy Chief Weldon is going to give a keynote speech in November at a conference promoting the privatization of public lands. To me, it all has a strong aroma of conflict of interest. The new buzzword in the concessionaire world is “PPP” for Public-Private Partnership. They are using it to distance themselves from the charge of “privatization” which they have learned creates knee-jerk opposition among the public. But PPP is just code for Privatization; they are one and the same. Check out the below comparison over time of the banner on the webpage for

Note from Sharon: I have attached three operating plans and a better version of the webpages here; below is the best I know how to do in WordPress as an image.
Santa Catalina Complex RoseCyn2012OPplanSigned.

Ochoco FOIA_Ochoco_2012_operating_plan_and_GT_agreement.

Pike and San Isabel2012 – Operating _Plan_Redacted.

And a higher resolution of the screenshots below, ParkPrivatization_webpage_banner_evolution

6 thoughts on “Guest Post by Kitty Benzar on National Forest Concessionaires and Privatization”

  1. Taking a look at the operating plans, it seems like the company has committed to not only the operational work, but a lot of the management work. I can see why this is attractive if the unit is not funded to do that work themselves.

    It seems like the choice is closing the campgrounds versus concessionaires (or not for profit management?). Another option is making sure enough money gets to the ground for the FS to manage them. Other ideas?

  2. “. . . if the unit is not funded to do that work themselves.”

    The concessionaires are funding their operations (and their profits) with fees collected from visitors. The Forest can retain visitor fees for operation of the facilities where they were collected, too. Why do they need other funding?

  3. Kitty, you have asked a very good question. I think it’s because of the net of regulations and administrative procedures that good minded souls in Congress and various administrations have required, which have accumulated for a hundred years into an impenetrable networks of dos and don’ts of various seriousness. The infamous bureaucratic “red tape.”

    To me, this cries for some research. Take a couple of concessionaire business plans, cost out the different parts. Then do interviews with a couple of districts and see how much it would cost them to do the same work. Then we would have a better idea about the “why” and how (possibly ) things could be tweaked to make the FS better able to do the work.

    This could be a collaboration between some recreation researchers and a business school or public administration school and be very interesting.

    Years back, we had the “Pilots” where FS units were relieved of some bureaucratic red tape just to see what they could do and how much money they could save. It seemed like a successful idea.

    We could do a two-pronged approach where we first investigated the costs and barriers in the FS, and then do a pilot where the FS was relieved of some of most important ones.

  4. Sharon, I like your idea for some research on this topic. But I would want to be sure that we are comparing apples and oranges. I mentioned this in an earlier comment on this topic, but if we’re going to do an appropriate comparison, I would want to include the costs of developing the management plan for whatever unit the concessionaire is managing. These are “hidden” costs that are absorbed within the USFS budget. The interesting thing to consider is that USFS staff are not only analyzing impacts within the campground, but also doing a whole host of other things within their day jobs as well, which is actually more efficient when planning for multiple objectives across an entire forest. My point is just that this is part of the costs for consideration when figuring what it costs to run a campground (or whatever). With these costs included, I think it would be quite interesting to do the kind of analysis you are suggesting…

    It could very well be that we are seeing the end of FS employees actually implementing management plans and, instead, moving into a time where the agency puts together management plans in conjunction with public and then contracts out all implementation (we’re practically there in most cases anyhow). These wold be longer-term contracts with multiple-year objectives. The benefit in doing business this way is that if the FS is legally bound by contract, the funding to fulfill the contract is much more likely to be included within future FS budgets.

    Another place where this kind of tings might fit well would be in fulfilling the FS mandate to perform adequate monitoring, following project implementation (e.g. forest thinning projects). In this scenario, the FS would still need funding for enforcement of contract terms for whatever the concessionaire (or contractor) is doing, but it could still pencil out as a costs savings to the public. personally think this is a really interesting topic and would enjoy exploring this further…

  5. Mike I reposted your second and third paragraphs in another post above. The question of how to calculate the costs is worthy of more exploration.

    It does remind me of the “studies” that were done with regard to outsourcing (A-76 or whatever it was). Also of the studies of the pros and cons of the fire militia.

    It’s interesting that research projecting unknown and unknowable futures is well-funded, but trying to figure out how we can manage what we have better right now is not so popular. Ah, science fads!

    Maybe I should start a list of The People’s Research Needs in addition to The People’s Data Needs.


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