The U.S. Forest Service joins other federal agencies in offering fee-free days on public lands in 2013, beginning Jan. 21 in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
That day marks the first of four fee-free days the Forest Service is offering the public in 2013.
“Your national forests and grasslands are a bargain any day of the year, but even more so on fee-free days,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Whether you stay for a few hours or a few days, your public lands are some of the best travel bargains in the nation.”
Traditionally, fees are not charged on 98% of national forests and grasslands, and approximately two-thirds of developed recreation sites in national forests and grasslands can be used for free. This includes opportunities such as camping and picnicking.
The Forest Service operates approximately 17,000 developed recreation sites nationwide. Of those, approximately 6,000 require recreation fees, which are used to provide visitor services, repairs and replacements, and facilities maintenance.
The 2013 fee-free days the Forest Service will participate in are:
• Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day
• June 8, National Get Outdoors Day
• Sept. 28, National Public Lands Day
• Nov. 9-11, Veterans Day Weekend
The U.S. Forest Service is waiving fees at most of its day-use recreation sites over the Veterans Day holiday weekend, Nov. 10-12.
According to a press release, the fee waivers – the fourth this year — are offered in cooperation with other federal agencies under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. Day-use fees will be waived at all standard amenity fee sites operated by the Forest Service. Concessionaire operated day-use sites may be included in the waiver if the permit holder wishes to participate.
“This is our way of saying thanks to the brave men and women – past and present – who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe at home,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We encourage veterans, their families and all visitors to take time out over the holiday weekend to enjoy the benefits that nature provides at forests and grasslands throughout the country.”
The fee waiver days support the goals of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Outside.”
The Forest Service operates approximately 17,000 developed recreation sites nationwide. Of those, approximately 6,000 require recreation fees, which are used to provide visitor services, repairs and replacements, and facilities maintenance.
The U.S. Forest Service is offering its 193 million acres of forests and grasslands as a prescription for healthier kids through an initiative of the National Environmental Education Foundation that connects children to nature.
The foundation’s Children & Nature Initiative trains health care providers to take a child’s environmental history and give patients and their guardians a written prescription for outdoor activity, connecting them with a particular forest, park, wildlife refuge, nature center or other public land near their neighborhood. Outdoor activity can help prevent serious health conditions like obesity and diabetes but also can reduce stress and serve as a support mechanism for attention disorders.
“Our nation’s forests and grasslands offer tremendous physical, psychological and spiritual benefits to an increasingly urbanized populace,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We hope kids and parents alike will follow the doctor’s orders when given a ‘prescription for fun.’”
The initiative gives health care providers the technical support, tools and resources they need to be effective in prescribing outdoor activity to patients. Providers are trained to become “nature champions” for children in their communities.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today (March 2) announced USDA’s continuing commitment to get kids outdoors and connected to the natural world around them through $1 million in cost-share funding from the U.S. Forest Service to enhance children’s programs in 18 states.
Vilsack will highlight the announcement later today at the Interior Department during the White House conference, Growing America’s Outdoor Heritage and Economy, which emphasizes the link between conservation and strong local economies through tourism, outdoor recreation, and healthy lands, waters and wildlife. The conference has attracted boaters, hunters, anglers, farmers, ranchers, land conservationists, historic preservationists, outdoor recreationists, small business owners, local governments, tribal leaders and others from across the 50 United States to discuss ways to spur and support successful conservation projects around the nation.
The Forest Service grants align with President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiatives.
“These programs provide an essential connection to our great outdoors, which we hope can be a key part of growing up for children from all walks of life,” said Vilsack. “We need kids to experience the wonders of the great outdoors and take ownership of the future of natural resources. Today’s children are tomorrow’s stewards of the land.”
The funding will be distributed to the agency’s More Kids in the Woods and Children’s Forests programs. Augmented by partnership money or in-kind donations, the funding will benefit existing programs or act as seed money for new ones that help kids explore their role in natural resources. Twenty-three of the grants will go toward More Kids in the Woods projects and eight will go toward the development or expansion of Children’s Forests.
“These grants strengthen our bonds with communities with a bottom line goal of getting kids to explore and appreciate America’s great outdoors,” said US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “There are few things more gratifying for me than seeing our youth gain an appreciation for the amazing landscapes we have in this country.”
More Kids in the Woods projects include activities and programs designed to spark curiosity about nature and promote learning. This is a cost-share program where thousands of partners contribute their time, energy and resources to help connect kids and families with the natural world.
Children’s Forests differ in that they are centered around developed outdoor spaces on national or state forests, in urban parks or at schools. The core mission of a Children’s Forest is to get young people to take a leadership role in forest management by giving them a voice in caring for the land.
The U.S. Forest Service is encouraging kids and their families to reconnect with nature and have fun by participating in the 4th annual National Get Outdoors Day on June 11.
The event, known as ‘GO Day,’ is an effort to “attract new, diverse communities to outdoor activities and to motivate kids to explore their national forests and other public lands,” according to a press release.
“GO day provides a great opportunity for kids big and small to get up close and personal with our country’s amazing forests and grasslands,” said U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell. “As the school year comes to a close, it’s time to get out and enjoy America’s wondrous lands and waterways. These early activities help bring families together, create lasting memories and instill a lifelong appreciation for our natural surroundings.”
The Forest Service has a bounty of children’s programs to help connect children to their natural environment, all of which support two key priorities of the Obama administration: President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative that seeks to connect people to the outdoors and creates partnerships between the federal government and American communities on conservation issues; and the Let’s Move! Outside campaign launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, which strives to offset childhood obesity through outdoor activities and healthier lifestyles.
The agency also has collaborated with the Ad Council to develop a new national campaign of public service announcements to ‘Re-connect Kids with Nature’.
Nationwide, more than 80 Forest Service locations will be providing free recreational and educational activities. Many events are designed to better engage urban and multicultural youth in nature-based activities and attract first-time visitors to public lands.
National signature events will take place at locations listed below and were selected based on impressive partnership initiatives generating a large array of innovative and interactive activities and a significant number of expected participants:
• Kingman Island in Washington, D.C.
• Denver City Park in Denver, Colo.
• National Children’s Forest in San Bernardino, Calif.
• Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn.
• Canyon Rim Park in Salt Lake City, Utah
• Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver,
Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, stressed the role of recreation in his March 24 address to the Recreation Exchange, hosted by the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) in Washington, D.C.
Tidwell leads the agency responsible for the management of 193 million acres of national forests and national grasslands. These lands provide an amazing diversity of outdoor recreation opportunities, connecting people with nature in an unmatched variety of settings and activities and hosting some 200 million recreation visits to national forests annually.
According to an ARC news release, Tidwell emphasized the value of recreation in the national forests to the nation in terms of jobs and the economy — at least $14.5 billion, or more than half of the total contribution of the Forest Service to GDP — and health, saying, “Recreation is a major part of our role in managing the 193 million acres of forests and grasslands. We recognize the full value of recreation to the nation and communities, such as economic and employment opportunities, and healthy lifestyles.”
Tidwell told the group that the White House’s “America’s Great Outdoors” Initiative was “an incredible opportunity,” saying the report released on Feb. 16 offers a platform for expanding recreation and “an opportunity to highlight the benefits of the outdoors on health and well being.”
Tidwell emphasized the importance of recreation to our recovering economy. “The recreation industry is the economic driver for much of America, and especially rural communities, perhaps much more than people know,” he said. “The more we talk about the economic benefits, the better.”
The chief talked next about the Forest Service Planning Rule draft, which was released on Feb. 10 and is now in public comment stage. Click here.
Tidwell emphasized the importance of planning for the future – that people will want and need different ways to access and enjoy public lands 10 or 40 years from now. He said, “We need to look at visitor needs and how we invest and plan for what’s best long range. We must be adaptable.”
Exchanges have featured guests who are influencing recreation public policy in America near-monthly since 1979.
Read the full report on ARC’s Recreation Exchange web page.
Earlier this summer, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) CEO Jim Rogers visited with leaders in Washington, D.C., who share his interest in improving America’s outdoor recreation.
Roger’s message: KOA’s nearly half-century of camping, guest service and outdoor recreation experience is a valuable resource for our country’s public agencies and their guests. Rogers believes that a collaborative effort between public agencies and the private sector is a necessary step toward achieving national outdoor recreation and healthy lifestyle goals, according to a KOA news release.
Rogers’ meetings in the nation’s capital were held to increase dialog about potential ways to enhance the outdoor recreation experience across America and are an example of KOA’s goals to provide families with fun, healthy and memorable outdoor recreation experiences.
“KOA is looking for public recreation and park leaders who want to share campground management expertise to add revenue-generating features and better services for campers,” said Rogers. “KOA has been sharing its campground management learnings and innovations for nearly 50 years. And, considering the significant future challenges for public campground funding, it seems appropriate for us to reach out to our public sector partners to discuss ways we can work together.”
“At KOA, we look at trends, such as the leisure activities of the Baby Boomer generation and we are investigating ways to engage America’s fast-growing, ethnic populations in outdoor activities. We’re optimistic that 44% of campers today are planning to get outdoors and go camping more in the near future. Both public and private outdoor recreation proponents can plan wisely, to give outdoor enthusiasts what they’re looking for and motivate others to get outside,” said Rogers.
Rogers shared several of KOA’s key strategies for engaging people in outdoor activities, including: connecting with youth; keeping programs simple, low-cost and fun; creating experiences that people remember and want to repeat; and using innovative technologies to help connect people with the outdoors.
Rogers met with key staffer James Hague, of Sen. Mark Udall’s, D-Colo., office. Udall is co-chairman of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, which promotes healthy, active lifestyles and fosters an appreciation of America’s outdoors, through many outdoor activities, including camping.
The message for U.S. states and public agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is that KOA continues to demonstrate successful strategies for engaging families in outdoor recreation and that KOA’s private sector experience can be a valuable resource for public agencies with parallel goals.
Rogers also met with former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, a long-time champion of outdoor recreation, to discuss the importance of making recreation on public lands a national priority, again using the private sector model as a key resource for enhancing public programs by incorporating ways to provide better, guest-oriented service, among other methods.
Assisting Jim was Bruce Ward, who serves as a consultant to KOA. He is the former president of the American Hiking Society, founder and former executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance and founder and president of Choose Outdoors, a coalition of outdoor recreation interests.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical we join forces to develop a 21st century vision for outdoor recreation in America,” said Ward. “The stakes are high: the literal and figurative health of our country is at great risk. We must step forward and work together toward substantive and innovative solutions to preserve and expand our recreation legacy.”
Rogers and Chris Fairlee, KOA assistant vice president of system development, will represent KOA at next week’s meeting of the National Association of State Park Directors in Santa Fe, N.M., where KOA is a sponsor. Rogers will speak about ways state parks can achieve sustainability through utilizing lessons learned by KOA in the camping business. KOA will share a booth at the meeting with the Boy Scouts of America, where Rogers is president of the Western Region and recent recipient of the group’s Silver Antelope Award.
Visitors to U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are unhappy to find a private concessionaire instead of a federal uniformed forester at the entrance to national forest campgrounds, a Western Slope No-Fee Coalition study says.
The unexpected finding turned up when the group analyzed 4,100 responses to a Forest Service request late last year for comment on a proposed reduction in camping discounts for senior citizens and people with disabilities, No-Fee President Kitty Benzar said last week. The responses were acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, according to The Durango (Colo.) Herald.
(The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition was founded in 2001 by four renegades from western Colorado who refused to pay $5 to drive on a dirt road. It has evolved into a principal voice of the many Americans who believe in public ownership and public funding of public lands. It welcomes support from people of all recreational pursuits and political persuasions.)
While the Forest Service in March decided not to reduce campground discounts enjoyed by the elderly and people with disabilities from 50% to 10%, the number of unsolicited comments unfavorable to concessionaires was startling, Benzar said.
“I’d say nine of every 10 responses mentioned concessionaries when it wasn’t even part of the survey,” Benzar said. “There was overwhelming sentiment that federal land should be managed by a public agency — or at least volunteers — and not a private business.”
The general tenor of the comments — from 50 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces — is that concessionaires are interested only in profit and don’t have the same sense of stewardship of the land and natural resources as Forest Service employees, Benzar said.
A review of the responses by The Durango Herald found national park users upset about camping fee increases over the years. They saw the proposed reduction in the discount as a disguised effort by concessionaires to increase profits. The Herald review found an estimated 50% of respondents put concessionaires in an unfavorable light.
Asked to comment on the number of unsolicited references to concessionaires, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington said in a statement: “We appreciate that a significant number of people took the time to submit comments and expressed their heartfelt interest in national forest and grassland recreation. The Forest Service found their comments included some good ideas for improving the Forest Service recreation program. We value this feedback and will continue to utilize it as appropriate to ensure that these special places can be enjoyed today and by future generations.”
A request to address the concessionaire issue specifically brought this response Monday from press officer Joe Walsh: “The statement speaks for itself,” Walsh said. “We’re not going any further.”
The operation of the 47 campgrounds in the 1.9 million-acre San Juan National Forest — the closest to Durango are Junction Creek and Haviland Lake — are under contract to a new concessionaire this year: Rocky Mountain Recreation based in Valencia, Calif. Dave Baker, the Forest Service program leader for recreation and wilderness in Durango, said only one other bid was received, from Recreation Resource Management of America of Lakeside, Ariz.
Baker said that based on a three-year average, a concessionaire with the San Juan National Forest collects $500,000 in fees annually. He said 10% is reserved for deferred maintenance. Concessionaires then pay their business expenses, and the remainder is profit. Baker estimated that concessionaires earn 3%-5% profit.
Will Newman, vice president for operations at Rocky Mountain Recreation, has a different take on the role of concessionaires. Property management is a business and has to be managed as such, said Newman, who oversaw contracts for the National Park Service before moving to the private sector.
As a private business, Rocky Mountain must bid on jobs, has a payroll to meet, pays transient occupancy tax the same as hotels as well as local, state and federal taxes, and it returns 10% of its profit to the Forest Service, Newman said. Private companies also buy locally, a stimulus to the economy, he said.
Public agencies 20 years ago began turning to private contractors, which are more nimble in many aspects of business than governmental agencies, Newman said. He cited the use of scavenger companies to empty garbage cans and the ability of private industry to spend money on improvements when necessary without waiting for someone else’s budget process.
“We don’t set fees for campgrounds,” Newman said. “When a prospectus comes out, we do a survey and put in a bid. We have to be aware of regional costs and of (bidding by) competitors.”
Rocky Mountain’s contract with the San Juan National Forest is for five years with an option for a second five years.
While the Forest Service backed away from reducing the discount for senior citizens and people with disabilities at overnight campgrounds, uncertainties remain, Benzar said. The new concessionaire could increase fees for overnight camping and apparently is under no obligation to honor day-use passes (she cited an internal Forest Service briefing paper). If the Forest Service itself operated campgrounds, it would be required by law to do so, Benzar said.
A pass good for one year costs able-bodied people $80. The pass is $10 for seniors and free for people with disabilities.
There are other nettlesome issues, Benzar said. The Forest Service hires concessionaires without public input, and concessionaire fee increases are decided administratively, again without public comment, she said.
“By turning a site over to private management, the Forest Service is bypassing federal requirements, not to mention oversight by Congress and the public.”
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced Wednesday (March 17) his decision not to implement proposed changes to fees charged to holders of passes at Forest Service campgrounds operated by private businesses. The chief’s decision means seniors and people with disabilities will continue to receive a discount at Forest Service campgrounds run by private concessions, according to a press release.
The forest service had proposed changes to discounts provided to holders of Golden Age and Golden Access Passports and Senior and Access Passes. Under the proposal, discounts at concession-operated campgrounds would have changed from the current 50% to 10%. After considering many public comments, Tidwell determined the proposed changes are not the best way to address growing challenges regarding services provided by private businesses at forest service recreation facilities.
“Each year more than 175 million people enjoy recreational opportunities on national forests and grasslands, and that includes more than 15 million visits to our campgrounds,” said Tidwell. “Particularly in these difficult economic times, it is very important to maintain affordable access to our national forests and grasslands, giving people easy ways to recreate and find respite in the great outdoors.”
Concessioners are not required to accept passes at day-use sites. Seniors age 62 and older pay a one-time $10 fee for the Senior Pass. Lifetime Access Passes for people with disabilities are free.
The Forest Service conducted a 60-day public notice and comment period on the proposed changes. More than 4,000 comments were received.
For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us.
The U.S. Forest Service is considering allowing private companies that manage many of its campgrounds to charge more to senior citizens and people with disabilities, cutting a long-running discount as the nation grows older.
The Twins Falls, Idaho, Times-News reports that for years, people holding lifetime Senior and Access passes or the previous Golden Age and Access passes were entitled to 50% off the cost of staying at campgrounds managed by concessionaires. But in December, the federal agency proposed shrinking the fee discount to 10%. Concessionaires would also have to offer a 10% discount to those groups at “standard amenity recreation fee” day-use sites they operate.
Forest Service representatives argued in a public notice that the change is necessary to keep concessionaires from raising fees for other campground users and ensure access stays fair for all Americans. Agency staff said Tuesday (Feb. 16) it may be some time before a decision is made.
The number of senior citizens in the U.S. is expected to rise to more than 20% of the nation’s overall population over the next decade, driven by the Baby Boomer generation, and discounted campsites make up a growing portion of camping-fee revenue.
Other hospitality, travel and recreation companies have largely adopted a 10% discount in the face of the generational growth, the Forest Service argued. The agency estimates that senior pass holders would pay perhaps $4 to $5 more per site under the new plan. Other campers already pay an extra $1.50 to cover the discount; that would rise by as much as another dollar without any changes.
A comment period on the proposal ended Feb. 1, but people are still weighing in — including Idaho’s four-member congressional delegation. On Friday, Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick made public a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell questioning the need for and timing of the cuts. They noted Tidwell has recently received general funding increases and $650 million in federal stimulus funds for capital improvements and maintenance.
Groups such as the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition have criticized the change as benefitting private corporations on public land. But the industry has backed the proposed rules, playing up the advantages private contracts bring to the public sites.
“… Campground operation is not an inherently governmental function,” wrote Derrick A. Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, in his public comment letter.
The cost of camping could go up for some people looking to put down stakes on America’s national forests, under a new plan that would reduce the discounts given senior and disabled campers.
U.S. Forest Service proponents say the change from a 50% discount to a 10% discount would help private concessionaires remain profitable and would bring the federal fee policy in line with private market camping rates, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette.
Critics say it represents a breach of faith, further eroding affordable access to public lands.
The discounts date back some three decades to a time when the Forest Service was embarking on a fee-based system that relied upon private concessionaires to maintain campgrounds. Federal law created both the Golden Age and Golden Access passes, which granted holders a lifetime of free entry to national parks, as well as a 50% discount on federal camping fees.
In 2005, a new law — the Recreation Enhancement Act, or REA — took effect, maintaining the lifetime passes but no longer requiring the 50% camping discount.
According to the proposed rule change, the Forest Service is the only land management agency still requiring concessionaires to offer the half-off rate. Other agencies, such as the National Park Service, allow concessionaires to decide whether to extend the discounts.
The rule change notes a 2008 survey, indicating that nearly 80% of federal land passes sold are senior-citizen and access passes, which include the reduced camping rates.
It also notes a growing number of senior citizens in America, warning that the overall costs of the discount program will escalate as Baby Boomers reach their “golden years.”
Total campground concession revenue totaled $35 million in 2007, according to the rule change, and the discount cost an estimated $4.2 million in revenue.
By cutting the discount from 50% to 10%, revenue is projected to increase by about $3.36 million.
The change would affect only Forest Service sites operated by concessionaires, but those campgrounds represent 82% of “reservable” camping in national forests.
“On the one hand, we need to continue to have enough concessionaires to operate the campgrounds, and we also don’t want to undercut our neighbors who are running the private campgrounds next door,” said Rose Davis, spokeswoman at the Forest Service Region 1 offices in Missoula, Mont.
“On the other hand, we want to keep camping affordable on these public lands.”
Agency officials also say the rule change would allow campground concessionaires to use deeper discounts at certain times of the year, to promote off-season use.
Davis said it’s important for all those affected to comment on the proposed rule change “because we need to hear from as many people as possible before a decision is made.”
The agency certainly will be hearing from Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.
“The Forest Service,” Benzar said in a prepared statement, “is not showing good faith by changing the terms of the passes after the fact. They encouraged people to turn in their Golden passes, which guaranteed a 50% camping discount, in exchange for an REA pass, which does not.”
Benzar complained the proposed change is the latest in a string of policy decisions that have turned public-land recreation into a market commodity.
“Public lands,” she said, “are now expected to pay their own way in access fees.”
The discounts for seniors citizens and the disabled were intended to honor a lifetime of contribution to the nation, and to ensure access to outdoor recreation for all.
“I guess that’s out the window now,” Benzar said.
But not, apparently, everywhere.
On the Flathead National Forest, for instance, only 10 or so of the 27 “developed” campgrounds are run by private concessionaires. And on the Lolo National Forest, no campgrounds would be affected because none of the 74 developed sites there is run by concessionaires.
“If it’s not run by a concessionaire, it wouldn’t be affected by the change,” said Denise Germann, spokeswoman on the Flathead.
The rule change, she said, would add only a few dollars to each night’s stay, as campgrounds generally are priced at $15 or less per site.
Under the current system, seniors 62 and older pay a one-time $10 fee for the pass, and lifetime “access” passes for the disabled are free.
In addition to providing national park entry and camping discounts, the passes afford free day-use of recreation sites; the new plan would require fees be paid for that use, as well.
“No more special honors,” Benzar said, “no more special breaks. Pay up or stay home now applies to everyone.”