Why The US Forest Service Turned to Private Recreation Management

Many people in the US Forest Service, from both organizational pride as well as their own individual incentives (supervisors in the government make more money and have more prestige if they have larger budgets and more headcount) are to this day not happy that the Forest Service has private companies running campgrounds and other recreation areas.  However, this program has been successful for over 30 years and is used to operate over half the USFS recreation areas by number, and probably over 80-90% by visitation.

The USFS originally pursued private management out of necesity.  Here is the only chart you need to see.  Thought the Y-axis says board-feet of timber, it is direclty proportional to USFS revenue (source)

In effect, the USFS recreation program, previously funded in large part by timber sales revenue, lost most all of its funding over the last 20-30 years.  And Congress has made clear that it will not make this up through appropriations.  Worse, every few years, what recreation budget remains is often swept in its entirety into the fire budget during busy fire seasons.

But unlike many state park organizations who are facing budget cuts far less drastic, the USFS is not talking about closing recreation areas, or even building up a backlog of deferred maintenance.  In California, a cut of about $14 million on a $400 million budget has caused over 70 parks to be proposed for closure.  The USFS has, on a percentage basis, seen a much larger decrease in its recreation budget, but it still can keep parks open, mainly because it has learned to use lower-cost private operators to keep parks open.