Ryan Zinke’s desire to further privatize federal campgrounds raises concerns

Kevin Fixler
Summit Daily News

In lockstep with prior remarks from President Trump regarding the nation’s public lands, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke floated the idea two weeks ago of privatizing all campgrounds under his watch as a way to offset billions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs.

This week, the cabinet member tasked with overseeing the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management doubled down on the plan, stating he planned to reduce the federal department by 4,000 full-time employees. The National Park Service can anticipate losing 1,200 of those positions and BLM 1,000 jobs by the end of 2017.

Zinke’s original comments, made to a recreational vehicle trade group at a meeting in Salt Lake City, left much for interpretation.

“I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” the website Utah Policy reported he said. “We are going to have more public-private partnerships soon. I think that’s where the industry should be going.”

It remains unclear if he envisions a federal lands selloff or employing more administrative companies to maintain and supervise these popular summer areas. Due to constricted annual budgets — and the postponed but rising repairs to critical infrastructure and other amenities valued at $141 million in Colorado alone — many National Parks and BLM campsites are already being managed by private enterprise.

“It raises concerns and people should be skeptical,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit focused on protecting the health of the American West. “Getting private industry in the mix is a recipe to get somebody rich and the American camper pushed to the wayside. Companies are there to make money and collect fees, but are not necessarily investing in the campground, customer service is not the No. 1 priority and it’s not about the camper.”

Meanwhile, faced with declining federal budgets as well, the U.S. Forest Service — under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture — has also been calling on private industry to assist with management of established campgrounds. Presently, approximately half of all forestlands in Colorado are presided over by a third-party concessionaire.

On the White River National Forest, there are roughly 50 such recreational sites from the towns of Dillon to Meeker. Within the Dillon Ranger District, a private company has overseen many of the large- and medium-sized camping areas such as those at Dillon Reservoir dating to around 1990.

“As our federal appropriations have been reduced for recreation, so we have to prioritize where we spend our appropriated dollars,” said Bill Jackson, Dillon District ranger. “Our trail-based recreation is where most of the population is, so that’s where we spend a lot of it.”

In many instances, he said, the nightly fees charged at some developed sites were not even covering the cost of running and maintaining them, so the district was forced to dip into discretionary funds or locate grants to assist with the expenses. As payrolls shrink, too, it’s the Forest Service’s belief that the public receives an improved experience — not from privatization, but rather permits on public lands — from the increased presence of hosts who offer more routine upkeep and companies able to reinvest capital into the campground.

“Under current conditions we do our best, but we could do better,” said Jackson. “It really is a seven-day operation, but we’re not staffed up to that level, so we’re cleaning restrooms and not much else. We don’t have time or the resources to do all of the day-to-day management at Lake Dillon.”

Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, became one of the last cabinet posts in the Trump administration filled when he was confirmed on April 24. The former Republican governor of Georgia for eight years until 2011 has yet to weigh in on whether outsourcing more forest campsites is a specific charge.

In mid-May, though, the White River National Forest issued a prospectus soliciting concessionaire applications for additional campsites and other day-use facilities in both the Dillon and Eagle-Holy Cross ranger districts. Some of the available locations include those adjacent to Green Mountain Reservoir north of Silverthorne and other popular destinations like Blue River and Cataract Creek campgrounds.

On-site visits are scheduled for the week of July 10 for all interested parties and applications due in September for 10-year permits starting Jan. 1, 2018, and up for review after the first five-year term. The full prospectus is available at:

“Developed recreation is really one of the smaller programs we oversee,” said Rich Doak, White River National Forest recreation and lands staff officer. “We have about 3.4 million hikers each year compared to developed camping at a few hundred thousand. With limited dollars as we’re moving forward and continuing to tighten our belts, doing this allows us to keep them all open and still serve the public.”

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