Western campgrounds might close

U.S. Forest Service evaluating facilities as it searches for ways to cut its costs

November 19, 2006|By The Denver Post

Hundreds of campgrounds, picnic areas and other recreation facilities in national forests and grasslands - mostly in the West - could close under a sweeping U.S. Forest Service cost-cutting plan.

Every one of the roughly 15,000 campgrounds, trailheads with a bathroom and other developed recreation sites in the 193 million acres under the agency's authority is being evaluated.

The value of each site is being weighed against the cost of maintaining it, federal officials say.

Forest Service officials say they are being forced to juggle priorities as the system faces a $346 million backlog in maintenance, a growing tab for fire suppression - now 42 percent of expenditures - and an annual budget that was cut 2.5 percent to $4.9 billion for 2007.

"We are looking at reality here," said Jim Bedwell, the Forest Service's national director of recreation and heritage resources. "We're trying to best focus our funds as well as look at other ways to operate."

About 10 percent of facilities in 44 national forests that have completed their studies are targeted for decommissioning or closure.

Each of the agency's 155 national forests and 20 grasslands must complete a recreation site facility master plan by the end of 2007.

The process calls for recreation facilities to be itemized and ranked in order of their condition, frequency of use and how they fit into the forest's recreation focus, or "niche."

"There is a whole range of potential outcomes, ... from closing sites to actually upgrading them," said Steve Sherwood, director of recreation for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region.

The public will have a chance to weigh in once the sites have been selected. Implementation of the plans will take five years, Forest Service officials said.

"Some of the sites being looked at have extremely low occupancy rates, in the 5 to 10 percent range," Sherwood said.

"We recognize there will be people who have strong connections," he said, "but we also know people in Maine and California expect us to take a hard look at those locations because it is their tax dollars going to support these small sites."

Forest Service officials say local volunteers, civic organizations and private groups could step in and run some of the facilities on the list.

Decommissioned campgrounds would be available for camping, but they won't have toilets, trash cans, picnic tables or water systems, Sherwood said.

Critics say the Forest Service is sneaking the process through with little public involvement and the result will be less access to forests and fewer recreational opportunities.

"This is an enormous change for the Forest Service," said Robert Funkhouser, president of Colorado's Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.

"What you have here is a policy that mandates all sites are self-sustaining or profitable or they must be closed. ... That's not OK," Funkhouser said.

In the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests in Colorado, 50 of the forests' 140 recreation amenities will have to close or be modified, said Lee Ann Loupe, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

The public will be invited to comment on the process, and "nothing is set in stone yet," she said.

Arapaho-Roosevelt has enough money to operate 64 of its 177 recreation sites - with some others run by concessionaires, said Paul Cruz, forest recreation staff officer.

One goal of the service's overall plan is to cut the $346 million maintenance backlog 20 percent by 2010, 70 percent by 2015 and 90 percent by 2020.

Another factor driving the review is the need to upgrade campground water systems to meet tougher federal drinking-water standards, officials said.

Scott Silver, director of the Oregon-based Wild Wilderness, said the Forest Service is placing too much emphasis on cutting costs and outside groups' taking over facilities.

"It is a way to allow the government to get the job done without using tax dollars," Silver said. "When you starve government of the needed money, you force these other alternatives. You start to make government fail. Americans are becoming used to government failing."

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