Apparently I am the villain du jour at Wild Wilderness, a site that states its mission in part as:
When you venture in to the wilderness, do you seek nature and solitude or ticket lines and two-stroke engines? If recreation industry heavyweights have their way, your next walk in the woods will start at a toll booth and end in a gift shop with canned entertainment along the way.
Why? Because cash-strapped federal land managers have turned to corporate America to fill gaping budget holes. So the public must now pay private concessionaires to take a walk on public lands. Tent campsites are being paved over to build more lucrative RV parks. And hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands are being auctioned off.
I found my vilification at that site to be a bit odd, as I tend to be a big supporter of public recreation. While there may be private companies doing things I am unfamiliar with, I can’t even imagine spending my time trying to add elaborate facilities the public doesn’t want to wilderness areas. First, what a waste of time, even if I wanted to! I can build any campground I want on private land, so why fight the complicated land use rules on public lands? Second, I don’t have the interest — if I wanted to run highly developed campgrounds, I would be running KOA franchises. Third, I don’t have the time.
What keeps me busy is trying to keep parks open and preserve public recreation by running recreation areas at a lower costs than can the public agency itself. The Wild Wilderness folks would like to see all public recreation fully funded from general revenues without the need for fees or private companies, but my sense is that this is a reality that is long gone. Federal, state, local parks are closing because elected officials cannot or will not fully fund recreation from the treasury. When government agencies are not able to run these parks with the fee revenues at the gate, either fees go way up or the parks close (you folks in CA and AZ are seeing both of these happen). We are trying to offer a third way, to keep parks open with private management.
We aren’t trying to take ownership of the land. We aren’t trying to pave the wilderness. We aren’t trying to build condos in front of Old Faithful. We are in fact willing to accept whatever recreation mission or preservation mission the public owner of the park sets and manage the park to that mission. If the site is to remain primitive, we keep it primitive. If the public agency wants new facilities, we help bring capital investment in new facilities (all approved in advance by the public agency). What we bring to the table is that in many cases, we can operate the park and keep it open with the fees paid at the gate, without big price hikes and without the need for subsidies. We currently have a proposal, for example, to operate six Arizona State Parks that are being closed — and we propose doing so without the fee increase AZ State Parks is imposing at its other parks.
Just check out a site like camparizona.com, which ranks the public’s favorite campgrounds in the state. We run the #2, #4, and #5 campgrounds on the 2009 list. All are in beautiful natural settings without a Starbuck’s or other corporate investment in site. And all are ranked higher than most facilities run by the government. Why? Because I am as smart as you guys are. If I asked you, I am sure you would say that if you ran the parks, you would never want to change their essential natural character, because that is what makes them attractive to visitors. Give me credit for understanding that too. The whole developed travel business got hammered in the recession last year. While Westin struggled to sell $400 rooms, I had a record year offering affordable $16 camping to cash-strapped families looking to recreate during hard times. Why would you assume I would want to change that?
Postscript: The USFS is beginning their planning process, and is having hearings here. For some reason, the largest recreation provider in the world does not mention recreation in its planning topics, but I presume they will take comments from the public on anything. In my vision, the USFS would, as part of its planning process, clearly designate individual recreation areas as to the character that should be maintained. They have a designation system related to fees, but they really need a system that says what investments are appropriate for certain facilities – ie facility X will always be a tent camping site and no paved sites or RV hookups will be added. Such a process would, I think, be of help to some of the concerns of Wild Wilderness readers. The RVers (not me!) put tremendous pressure on the USFS to pave sites, add amenities, etc. Despite the assertions on the Wild Wilderness site, these improvements don’t make the site any more profitable for our company.
Let me give one example of what a real planning process might address. I hate generators when I camp. Others love them, so fine, but in the campgrounds we run we are pretty diligent about enforcing quiet hours. Why couldn’t there by no-generator campgrounds in the USFS? I would love to designate a couple, but am not allowed to by the USFS (I know everyone seems to think I control the USFS, but we can barely change the brand of toilet paper we use without permission). This kind of designation system would be a great kind of planning process, and could ensure a mix of facilities existed in every state for a variety of different visitor interests.