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Privatization of public lands

“What once was free

Shall no longer be

Says their Recreation Facility Analysis

And business plan.”

Scott Silver of the former group Wild Wilderness, regarding a 2016 proposal on the Nez Perce – Clearwater National Forests.

For sometime now, corporate interests have been trying to turn public wildlands managed by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management into a cash cow for the recreation industry. Sadly, this program is well on its way to privatizing, marketizing and commodifying outdoor recreation, amounting to a disneyfication of nature so that it is no longer wild.  (NOTE: Unfortunately, National Parks have long had concessionaires, who unduly influence National Park policy, and that trend is becoming worse with corporate sponsorships in National Parks).

One of the more important tools within industry’s arsenal is expanding the fee program on National Forests and public lands (the much despised Fee Demo and its later iteration, which goes by FLREA). While it is reasonable to expect the Forest Service to charge modest fees for campgrounds that offer amenities, the trend is toward developing more primitive campgrounds into fee sites or charging fees for primitive camping.  This is a vicious cycle, more development justifies more fees which justifies more development. A researcher called this the “spiral of expectation” – the idea being the more you pay, the more you expect, the more it costs to meet that expectation, the higher the fees must be in order to meet that higher expectation. As Western Slope No-fee Coalition states about public lands, “We support them with our taxes and should be able to enjoy basic access without having to purchase a pass. Public lands should be places where everyone has access and is welcome.”

Private businesses benefit from the expansion of the fee program. About 80% of the most developed National Forest campgrounds, built by US taxpayers, are now run by private companies. In some areas, the Forest Service allows these companies to charge fees for simply parking on the National Forests, effectively turning National Forests into private land. Private businesses don’t yet run campgrounds or other recreation sites on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests, but a private company does all the online reservations. The Forest Service proposal (2016) for increasing fees, charging fees at primitive sites and turning administrative structures into rentals sites on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests states,  “People wanting to reserve the identified sites will need to do so through the National Recreation Reservation Service … The National Recreation Reservation Service charges a $9 fee per reservation.”  That $9 does not benefit the National Forests. It is pure profit for the company. In this way reservation systems also “privatize” the resource for those who make the reservation. Instead of access being on a “first come first serve basis” — people can, and DO, make reservations for sites they never occupy. And so while the campground might have sites that are not being used, people who show up without a reservation can be turned away because all of the sites have been pre-sold for the night.

This expanding fee program is a step in the wrong direction in part because it changes the relationship between the agency and the public to one of business and consumer rather than agency and citizen. This is the goal of the industry, to have all recreation on the National Forests be a marketable experience, or pay to play and so outfitters, concessionaires, guides and others can “sell” to the consuming public an expanded product range of recreation products, goods, services and experiences. The Forest Service locally has fallen into the trap of behaving like a for-profit business rather than as an agency that serves the public. A Forest Service proposal (2016) for the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests to increase fees, turn primitive sites into fee sites, and turn old administrative structures into rental sites confirms this damaging trend:

A business analysis of the proposed new fee sites listed has shown that people desire having a variety of recreation opportunities and experiences throughout the Nez Perce–Clearwater National Forests, …  A market analysis of surrounding recreation sites with similar amenities indicates that the proposed fees are comparable and reasonable.

In essence, a “business analysis” and its allied Recreation Facility Analysis now substitutes for normal public involvement channels and rather than a public good, a “market analysis” justifies higher fees.

It appears that on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests the number of campgrounds and other fee sites is increasing while the number of primitive non-fee campsites is decreasing.  Further, it is not clear that all of these fee sites meet the requirements to be fee sites.

The industry and the agency claimed the expanded fee program (the Fee Demo program first implemented in 1997) would increase the recreation budget and lead to better maintenance of recreation sites. That has not proven to be the case. Appropriated recreation dollars from Congress are now diverted to administrative overhead (top-heavy Forest Service administration) and so the amount of money reaching the ground has not increased, rather it has decreased. Maintenance backlogs have also grown.

Prior to the Fee Demo program, there was a balance between non-fee primitive campgrounds and others that had more amenities at a modest price. This provided public benefits to US citizens. The current fee program is like turning over public libraries to concessionaries, charging people to enter, and allowing some concessionaires to sell valuable library books to the highest bidder, while allowing the libraries to fall into disrepair. Sadly, the public is expected to pay higher prices for a public good while private extractive industries—grazing, mining and logging—are subsidized by our tax dollars on National Forests.

Closely tied to expanding fees everywhere is the Forest Service’s Recreation Facility Analysis program. This process, which sidesteps requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, is designed to determine what developed recreation sites are needed. The Forest Service has decided to drastically increase the number of developed sites in two ways:  by declaring many dispersed sites as developed, without (yet) proposing any improvements; and by declaring unneeded administrative structures as recreation sites on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests.

The major problem with the old administrative sites is they are being converted to rental cabins without public involvement under the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of those cabins and lookouts are deep in roadless areas and making them rental sites would conflict with the potential for future wilderness designation. Structures like Gold Meadows and Meadow Creek (additions to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness), Scurvy Mountain and Liz Creek (Weitas Creek), and Cold Springs and Wallow Mountain (Mallard-Larkins) are some places either proposed for rental cabins or currently are rental cabins. Turning the wild backcountry into cabin sites is little different than turning the backcountry into motorized playgrounds. The impacts of changing occasional administrative use of these places to increased recreation use in the backcountry have not been examined and consideration of whether these sites are needed anymore has not been made.

No administrative sites should be changed to recreation sites until the forest plan is revised. That is the proper venue where the allocation of roadless areas and recommended wilderness is made. In any case, the Forest Service must do a proper analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on the impacts of this change.

Western Slope No-Fee Coalition is another excellent source of information.

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