Archive for the ‘Camping and Outdoors’ Category.

Los Angeles and Litter

The LA Times talks about the trash and litter cleanup at the OWS site in LA.  For reasons I don't fully understand, the absolute worst trash and litter problems we have in running campgrounds around the country are around LA.  For some reason, the closer a recreation area is to LA, the more trash we get dumped on the ground.  Nowhere else in the country comes close.

Don't Feed the Bears

Running campgrounds, this is the hardest thing we still have to teach people.  Do not feed the wildlife -- you are killing them.  Example from Yellowstone:

On Wednesday, Montana biologists euthanized a female grizzly that had taken to eating human food in the West Yellowstone area, frustrating a state bear expert with campers' failure to secure their food, reports The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

"It is always frustrating to have to make this type of decision and remove a bear for things that could have been basically prevented by people," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist Kevin Frey said on Thursday.

 

Public Testimony on Private Parks Management

I will be testifying in Pennsylvania in a hearing on public-private partnerships, with my 20 minutes on private parks management:

Tuesday, April 6th, 1:00 PM

Grove City College Hall of Arts and Letters, Sticht Auditorium

100 Campus Drive, Grove City

Topic:  Public Private Partnerships

Grove City Campus:   http://www.gcc.edu/Campus_Map.php

My presentation slides are here:  Keeping Parks Open with Private Management

Reason Foundation on Parks

Cross-posted from Park Privatization

Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation links my Glenn Beck interview and then goes deep on park privatization issues.  Check it out.  Potentially the biggest benefit to the public:

Appropriation risk: State parks operating under a concession no longer bear the appropriation risk that we're seeing play out in real life across the country, as parks get axed from state budgets amid rampant state fiscal crises (some examples include California, New York and Louisiana). Really, this is more of a risk that's eliminated, rather than transferred to the concessionaire (see revenue risk discussion above), so revenue/demand risk and appropriations risk are really two sides of the same coin.

On Glenn Beck Show Tonight

Talking about park privatization around 5:40 Eastern (though the segment has gotten bumped once before).

On The Air on Park Privatization in Arizona

I am on 550 KFYI radio at 8 tonight in Phoenix talking about my offer to keep state parks open. Update: The audio is posted here.

Pot, Meet Kettle

In opposition to a proposal for park privatization in Utah:

Mary Tullius, director of the Division of State Parks and Recreation, doesn't think so.  She says the state prides itself on giving Utah families affordable destinations like state parks. And if those destinations were made private, the quality would suffer.

"History has told us that whenever you privatize something people are so focused on making money that they don't pay attention to the infrastructure or to the maintenance of the facility. What happens after five years and they've run something and they haven't taken care of it and they turn back to the state? And then the state has a much bigger problem," she said.

This is hilariously wrong.  As readers probably know, my business is the private operation of public parks.  The number one problem we have in taking over government parks is that they are usually terribly run down.  By the time the government is finally willing to turn to private companies for help (generally in the category of "last resort") the government has typically been ignoring the capital maintenance needs of the parks for years.  As I have written before, government is terrible about appropriating sufficient amounts of capital maintenance dollars.  We see it in everything from parks to the Washington metro.

Nowadays, as a condition of taking over the operation of public parks, our company is generally asked to make a large up-front contribution to tackling deferred maintenance in the park.  In fact, in our newest contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority, we actually have rebuilt the entire park and campground from the ground up.

I am sure there are some private operators who have let things run down, but in general this has occurred when the public authority has insisted on giving the operator a series of 1-year contracts rather than a real 10-20 year contract.  Who is going to replace the roof if the contract only lasts for another 6 months.  On the other hand, who is going to fail to keep things nice if he knows he is going to be there for another 15 years?

I hear this kind of rant from people within the government all the time.  They seem to believe it, but it is hard to find an example where it is true.  When I worked for an oil company, they planned on having to totally rebuild their retail stations every 20 years or so.  What legislature plans for this kind of expenditure?

My current proposal to keep a number of Arizona State Parks open is here.

New American Nomads (Revisited)

Over five years ago, I wrote this article about retirees in RV's who have become the new American nomads.  Many of these folks work for my company each season, getting wages and a camping site in exchange for taking care of campgrounds. This is often called work camping.

A reader sent me this video from the NY Times discussing the same phenomenon  (here is the print article).  The only difference is these folks work for the government, which means that unlike at private companies, they don't get paid.  I find it kind of fascinating that the NY Times thinks it's a wonderful innovation that "cash-strapped state governments" help balance the budget on the backs of free labor from older people.  Can you imagine what the headlines would be if all the facts were changed, but the entity was a manufacturing company rather than a state park?  It would have been torches and pitchforks  (it is illegal except in narrow cases for private companies to accept free labor -- the government of course exempts itself from this requirement, as it does from much of labor law).

I actually think my article was better.  The way work campers tend to disperse over the summer and then congregate over the winter in a couple of gathering spots (Colorado River in AZ, South Texas, Florida) reminds me a lot of the plains Indian tribes.  And the challenges of a nomadic lifestyle when the world wants you to have a permanent address are interesting, and there are whole business models being crafted to solve these problems.

Anyway, our company hires nearly 500 of these folks every year, and are huge supporters of this lifestyle (and we pay!)   If you are interested, check out our websites above and sign up for our job newsletter.

A Tiny Breakthrough

The AZ Republic, which editorialized against our parks proposal before they had even seen it, gave us a brief mention today:

Separately, a Senate committee on Monday recommended passage of Senate Bill 1349. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Leff, would allow the parks board to lease the parks to public or private entities without going through normal procurement procedures.

That freedom could allow the parks to be leased quickly.

The lessee, who would be responsible for maintaining the park, could then charge admission fees and earn additional money through concessions.

"I'm trying to find a way immediately to make sure those parks do not close," said Leff, R-Paradise Valley. "There are private companies that will manage those parks for us."

Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Management, which operates 175 public parks around the country, has written a letter to parks officials offering to take over at least six of the parks.

While it shouldn't be, this is the last thing AZ State Parks wants to do.  However, with their options narrowing, they may be getting down to the last thing.  The outlines of the proposal we made is here.

A Proposal to Keep Arizona State Parks Open

Due to budget cuts, Arizona State Parks is closing 13 of its 22 state parks.  This last week, I have been making the rounds of the state government, from the state legislature to the head of Arizona State Parks, with a proposal to keep the 7 largest of these closed parks open, and pay the state money for the privilege.  Unfortunately, we have had only mixed success with a proposal that seems to me to be a win-win for everyone.  Our local newspaper editorialized against my proposal, without even knowing the details  (my response here).  So in this post, I am going to give the details of our proposal, and solicit your feedback, especially those of you in Arizona.  All I ask is that you read the whole thing, and not just leap into the comments section having just read and reacted to (positive or negative) this first paragraph about private operation of public parks.

Background

Our company, Recreation Resource Management (RRM), is over 20 year old, and we operate over a hundred public parks under concession agreement for the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, California State Parks, and many others.  Traditionally, park concessions used to be limited to private companies running the gift shop or the bike rental inside a park.  And we do some of that (for example we run the store and marina at Slide Rock and Patagonia Lake State parks).  But our preferred niche has always been to run entire parks on a turnkey basis.  We run a huge variety of facilities that largely parallel anything we might find in the Arizona State Parks system -- including campgrounds, day use and picnic areas, boat ramps, hiking trails, wilderness areas and historic buildings.  The largest parks we run are twice as busy as Slide Rock or Lake Havasu and four times as busy as any of the parks we are proposing to manage.  We currently run parks today literally right beside some of these Arizona State parks.  All of this is to say that the parks in Arizona are absolutely normal and typical resources that we manage.

A concession contract works much like a commercial lease.  We sign a contract allowing us to run the park for profit, and then pay the state a rent in the form of a percentage of fee revenues.  The typical operating agreement includes over 100 pages of standards we must conform to, from fee collection to uniforms to customer service to bathroom cleaning frequency to operating hours.

Our Proposal

At all of my meetings this week I made three offers, each of which we were willing to commit to immediately  (we could actually be up and running with about 21 days notice):

  1. RRM offered to keep some or all of six parks open out of thirteen on the current closure list.  These parks are Alamo Lake, Roper Lake, Tonto Natural Bridge, Lost Dutchman, Picacho Peak and Red Rocks (park but not the environmental center).  Not only could these stay open, but we could pay rent as a percentage of fee revenues to the state, money that could be used to keep other operations open.  While these parks represent about half of the closure list by number, by visitation they represent well over 90% of the closure list.  Combined these parks had a net operating loss of $659,000 to ASP, which we propose to turn into a net gain for the parks organization.
  2. RRM offered to operate five parks that are currently slated to stay open but where we could pay rents that are higher than the net revenue figure ASP showed for FY2009.  These parks are Patagonia Lake, Buckskin Mountain, Dead Horse Ranch, Fool Hollow and Cattail Cove.  Combined, this group of parks lost money for ASP in 2009 which we propose to turn into a solid net gain.
  3. While we would need to do more study, RRM suggested it might take on some of the smaller, money-losing parks beyond those mentioned above if they were packaged in a contract with some of the other parks listed above

To avoid problems with the procurement process, we offered to take as short as a 1-year contract to give ASP time to prepare a longer-term bid process.  We also agreed to maintain all current park fees for the next year without change (in contrast to ASP current plans to raise fees), and agreed that no fee could be changed without ASP approval.  The only help we asked for was

  • We perform rules enforcement, but we need law enforcement backup form time to time
  • We perform routine maintenance and keep the park safe and attractive, but many of these parks have substantial deferred maintenance problems that we cannot take on with only a 1-year contract  (but would be willing to invest capital to repair under a longer term arrangement)

And if the ability to keep almost half the parks slated for closure open was not enough of a value proposition, we proposed one additional benefit.  Any parks that are put under private concession management immediately cease to be a political football.  For years, parks organizations have closed and opened parks in a game of chicken with legislators, with the public as the victim.  Parks under private concession management no longer are subject to such pressures, as they are off the budget.  Back in the 1990's, when the new Republican Congress squared off with President Clinton over the budget, the government was shut down for a while, including all federal recreation facilities -- EXCEPT those under private concession management.  We got calls from the media saying, why are you open?  To which we replied -- hey, you have now discovered one benefit of private concession management -- the parks we manage are no longer political pawns.

Reactions

So far we have had really good and positive reactions from Arizona legislators  (I have not been able to see any of the Governor's staff).

The reaction from Arizona State Parks has been more muted.  While they are publicly open to all proposals, in reality this is the absolute last thing most of their organization wants to do  (you should see the body language in some of our meetings, it is a lot like trying to sell beer at a Baptist picnic).  They have not said so explicitly, but from long history with this and other parks organizations I can guess at some of the issues they have:

  1. Distrust of and distaste for private management runs deep in the DNA of the organization.  Many join parks with a sense of mission, seeing unique value to public ownership of parks and lands.  I attempt to explain that this value still exists, that what they are turning over is operations, not management and control, but I don't get very far.  I try hard to give the new management of Arizona State Parks a clean slate, but I can't help but be affected by something I saw their previous director say.  Back in about 2004 we hosted a breakfast at a convention of state parks directors up in Michigan, I believe.  Someone must have forgotten to throw us out of the room, because we witnessed the head of Arizona State Parks stand up in front of his peers and demand that they all hold the line against private management as one of their highest priorities.  It was made clear that state organizations that stepped out of line would incur the wrath of other states.  This summer we participated in a series of meetings in California called by Ruth Coleman, who is the head of the parks organization there and someone I admire.  She was trying to break the organization out of its old culture, but it was very clear in roundtable discussions that the rank and file would rather see the parks closed to the public than kept open using private concession management.
  2. I mentioned earlier that private management brings a benefit to the public of keeping the parks from being a political football.  But the parks organization feels like it needs that football.  Without the threat of park closures, it feels like its budget will be gutted like a fish.  And, now that its budget has been gutted, it still holds out hope its money will be restored and needs the park closures to keep up the pressure.  As long as there is even the slightest hope of budget restoration, a hope which I am pretty sure will "spring eternal," my proposal, no matter how much it makes sense for the people of Arizona, will never be adopted.

Again, these are just guesses.  Renee Bahl of Arizona State Parks has told me they are open to all new ideas, and I will take her at her word.

Libertarian Concerns

Those of you who know me to be a libertarian might wonder how I function in this environment.  The answer is, "with difficulty."  I have a strong philosophic passion to bring quality private management to public services, and this opportunity is a good one.  And I am not adverse to making money while doing so.  But I am adverse to rent-seeking, and there is admittedly a thin line between trying to make positive change and rent-seeking in this case.

I generally avoid this by insisting on short initial contracts (in this case 1 year) to prove out the concept and to allow time for the public agency to figure out how to put this beast through a procurement process that probably was not well designed for this type of thing.   This is what I did when the US Forest Service approached us with an idea to bring private management to the snow play area at Wing Mountain near Flagstaff.  We took it on a one-year contract (which grew to 2 years) and then the contract went out for public bid  - which we won - for 10 years.  We are very good at what we do and are not at all afraid to compete.  The only time I will not compete is when I perceive someone has a political connection that gives them an inside track.  After two or three losses in Florida counties to a company with no experience but a brother-in-law on the County commission, I realized it was just a waste of time to bid on these situations.

Conclusion

Please give your reactions and concerns in the comment section.  For those who disagree with private management of public resources, I will be honest and say you are unlikely to change my mind, as I have dedicated all my time and my life savings to the proposition.  But you may help me better understand and tailor our service to address public concerns.  I will try to keep the FAQ below updated based on what I am seeing in the comments.  If you are in Arizona and know someone you think I should be talking to, drop me an email at the link above.

FAQ

Does your company take ownership of the park? No.  The parks and all the facilities remain the property of Arizona State Parks.  We merely sign an operating lease, with strict rules, wherein we operate the park, keep the fees paid by the public, and pay the state a "rent" based on a percentage of the fee collections.  Even when we invest in facilities, like this store building and cabins, they become the property of the public at the end of the contract.

How can the state afford to pay you if they have no budget? We are not paid by the state, and receive no subsidy.  100% of our revenue is from fees paid by visitors to the park we operate.  If we don't run a good operation that is attractive to visitors, we don' t make any money.

Doesn't the state lose out if you keep all the fees? No.  Mainly because in all the parks we have proposed to take over, the state has net operating losses of up to $200,000 or more a year.  By taking over the park, their losses go away AND they receive extra money in the form of rents we pay.  We are able to do so because we have developed efficient processes for managing campgrounds and have a flexible and dedicated work force.

Are you going to build condos and a McDonald's? No.  The fact that this is such a common question is amazing to me, as we operate over 100 parks in this manner across the country and you would not be able to tell the difference between the facilities we manage and any other public park.  Under the terms of our operating contract, we cannot change fees, facilities, operating hours, or even cut down a tree without written approval form the parks organization.

Are you going to just jack up fees? No.  We have committed in our offers to keep fees flat for the next year.  We cannot raise fees without state approval, and we work hard to keep public recreation affordable.  Last year was a very good year for us because, in a recession, our low-cost recreation options gave many families on a budget a chance to have a quality recreation experience.

Why just a one year contract? We would actually prefer a longer contract, as this allows us to actually make approved capital improvements to parks (for example, we have installed many cabins in public parks we operate).  However, we have offered to take these under an initial contract that is just long enough to allow longer-term contracts to be fairly offered on a competitive bid basis.

Maybe no one trusts you because you are small and unproven? Well, perhaps.  But last year our total fee revenue was nearly $11 million, making us slightly larger than the Arizona State Parks system.  We have a proven record with decades of positive performance reviews from government agencies around the country.   For example, for those of you form Arizona, if you have stayed at a US Forest Service developed campground near Flagstaff, Sedona, Payson, or Tucson,  or sledded at Wing Mountain, you probably have stayed in a facility we operated.  We already operate two concessions in Arizona State Parks, and have a great record working with the organization.

Lots of Snow

Its almost like Utah up in Northern Arizona at our snow play area.  Many feet of new snow this week, probably more than we had all last year combined.  Below is Mike, the manager of our snow play area, who does a fabulous job.

wing 9 008

Arizona Parks Privitization

The AZ Republic has an editorial today saying that privatization is not the answer for the Arizona State Parks budget woes.   On the plus side, they did actually call me for my opinion yesterday before they published it.  On the down side, they ignored everything I said.  Here is my response:

I run one of the larger private parks management companies in the country, which is based right here in Phoenix. Like many Arizona residents, I am a frequent visitor to our state parks and am sympathetic to their current budget pain. Further, I am not one to offer up privatization as a panacea for all the park's woes -- the state parks organization fulfills a variety of public missions that cannot be undertaken well privately. But I think you missed a couple of important considerations in your editorial today counseling against privatization options.

First, from my experience with public recreation agencies around the country, these budget pressures on parks organizations never really end. Recreation is almost always a key pawn in budget fights, and even if Arizona State Parks funding is restored this year, we likely will be fighting the same battles in a few years. Private concession management of parks has the advantage of taking parks off the budget, so they no longer can fall victim to budget fights. For example, in the famous 1995 federal government shutdown, private concession run facilities in the US Forest Service were the only federal recreation options that remained open through the whole budget battle.

Second, while small low-visitation parks, on a standalone basis, may not represent a very good business opportunity, there are a variety of ways to handle privatization of smaller parks. We run approximately 175 public parks and campgrounds across the country, and well fewer than half of these stand on their own as private business opportunities. But many public agencies have learned to package smaller, low-visitation parks with higher-visitation parks into multi-park packages that both provide operators a business opportunity as well as meet the public's goal of keeping all of its parks open. Further, states like California have found many creative ways to keep historic sites open using private management. These solutions, at places like Columbia State Park, not only keep historic buildings open to the public but also create events and services that bring history alive and make it more interesting, particularly to children.

I know that private management is often sloughed off with statements like, "they would just build a McDonald's or put in a bunch of billboards." But thousands of parks nationally are managed privately, and this never happens. In part, this is because business people should get some credit for intelligence, and they understand what attracts people to outdoor parks in the first place and don't want to mess with the ambiance. In addition, we often have 100+ page operating agreements in place that carefully set out the quality of our services and the approvals we must obtain to make any changes to the facilities.

Further, it is sometimes suggested that private companies would just jack up the price. Well, Arizona State Parks is proposing to raise the Slide Rock entrance fee to $20. In contrast, we run nearby picnic and day use areas at places like Grasshopper Point and we rapacious capitalists only charge $8.

I am not advocating that Arizona State Parks turn off the lights and throw the keys to a private company; but I do think that private concession management could offer a piece of the long-term solution to keeping state parks open, both now and in future budget battles.

Top Arizona Campgrounds

Camp Arizona has put out its list of the top 10 campgrounds in ArizonaMy company runs three of the top five  (#2 Christopher Creek, #4 Cave Springs and #5 Manzanita).

Total Frustration With Arizona Parks

For the last year, I have watched in total frustration as Arizona State Parks threaten closure after closure to fix budget problems.  This is, of course, when they are not begging for new taxes to be dedicated to them.

For those who don't know, my company is in the business of privatizing public recreation.  At the moment, we are so swamped with requests from public authorities to keep parks open that I don't really bother going out and seeking new business.  But it is frustrating for me as an Arizona resident to know that many of these parks could remain open  (and user fees kept reasonable) under some sort of private concession management.

I know this may seem weird to you given that I work so much with governments, but I have no idea how to lobby government.  Unlike, say, John Murtha related enterprises, we get all the business we need simply responding to inquiries from public authorities who need help and submitting proposals in response to RFP's**.  In fact, if I had to lobby to keep the business running I would shut it down first.

So I have had no idea how to approach those involved in the Arizona parks debate to tell them there are alternatives.   I get frustrated each day as I see folks in the parks organization tell the media that private management would not work because none of their parks would make good business opportunities, when I know for a fact this is not true  (I operate stores in two of the parks and am familiar with several others, and have sent them unsolicited management proposals to run these parks -- again, I am not necessarily seeking the business, but I want to give the lie to the statement that private companies would not be interested).  Interestingly, two of the largest private recreation managers in the country are located in the Phoenix area, and neither of us have ever gotten a media call on this issue.

Of course, I am not completely naive.  I know there is a tried and true kabuki dance here where parks departments threaten to close down the Washington Monument in a bid for public sympathy that will either deflect budget cuts or spur new taxes.  I also know that state parks directors have sworn a blood oath together never to let private concessionaires run whole parks, even if the parks have to be shut down  (our company runs whole parks for folks like the US Forest Service and TVA, but most state parks only let concessionaires run the store or marina, not the whole park).  I know this anti-private law of omerta exists, because our company once sponsored a breakfast at a national state parks directors conference and we were in the room (unknown to the speakers) when this no-private-company discussion was held.

I have called and sent letters to nearly everyone in the state, but have not gotten any response.  To assuage my frustration that no one is even reading them, I will reprint one here just to say that someone, even if it is a reader in Australia, actually looked at it:

Janice K. Brewer, Governor;   Reese Woodling, Chair, Arizona State Parks Board; Maria Baier, State Lands Commissioner; Rene Bahl, Arizona State Parks Director

Many of the state parks currently proposed for closure could easily be kept open to the public under private concession management.  I run one of the larger operators of public recreation concessions in the country, and our company is the current store and marina concessionaire at Patagonia Lake State Park and Slide Rock State Park.  I know from experience both with public recreation in general as well as with Arizona State Parks that these parks (as well as many other in the ASP system) could easily be operated by a company like ours, retaining high quality recreation options for the public while converting a liability for the state into a financial asset.

For years we have urged the management of Arizona State Parks to consider private operations of more than just the stores in these parks.  For example, we operate whole parks turnkey for the US Forest Service, the National Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the United Water Conservation District (CA), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (TX).  By operating the park to high quality standards but at a lower cost, we are able to make a profit for ourselves and pay an annual rental fee (usually contracted as a percentage of sales) to the government authority that owns the park.

I find it tremendously frustrating that the private concession option has not even been put on the table for discussion, or gets sloughed off with tired clichés such as "private companies would just put up a McDonalds."  When we operate any public park, we operate under a strict and detailed operating agreement, typically running over 100 pages, that sets procedures for everything from bathroom cleaning frequency to approvals for fee changes.  We operate busy day use facilities such as Grasshopper Point and Crescent Moon along Oak Creek in Sedona side by side with Arizona State Parks at Slide Rock, and we maintain these facilities in at least as good a condition, while keeping fees to $8 (vs. $20 at Slide Rock) and still paying rent to the USFS for the concession.

I am not looking for any special consideration for our company.  I know such contracts must be competitively bid and we don't shy away from such competition.  However, I know that the management of Arizona State Parks has, for whatever reason, been resistant to the idea of private concession operations of entire parks, and I was afraid that this option may not have been presented to you as a viable alternative to closing these facilities.

I would be happy to discuss private concession management any time with you or your staff.

Sincerely,

Warren Meyer
President

Postscript: Interestingly, the most open state parks director to these ideas was Ruth Coleman in California.  Contrary to what one might expect, California State Parks is actually one of the more innovative and creative parks organizations out there in terms of privatizing certain functions and seeking private capital  (Texas, on the other hand, is one of the worst --  go figure).

Ms. Coleman was very supportive of our making investments in California Parks (example:  Cabins here) where no other park system has been so open.  She was nice enough to allow our company to sit on a panel of folks looking at potential solutions to the California Parks budget issues.  But her organization was openly hostile to any private participation, and essentially said they would rather see parks closed than remain open under private management.   For example, here was probably the most supportive comment we got:  "Well, I guess I could accept some private companies in the parks as long as we didn't allow them to make a profit."  Again, that was the least hostile statement.

**Footnote: The typical lifecycle of this business is that a public agency runs to us begging to take something over to keep it open.  We do so on a quickly negotiated contract, and then find ourselves spending a ton of money to fix all the deferred maintenance problems left by the public agency.   About when we finally get the place cleaned up and public trust restored and finally have the prospect to make a little money at the location, the public agency decides it is time to seek competitive bids.  Everyone who refused run the place when it was a mess now come out of the woodwork to bid on running the facility now that its fixed up, several of whom seem to have oddly close relationships with senior officials of the public agency.  We bid, some of which we win and some of which we lose.  If we win, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  If we lose, we shrug and try again.

Top Arizona Campgrounds

I don't often mix stuff in about my business, but two of our Arizona campgrounds - Manzanita and Cave Springs, both in the Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon area, were named to the top 10 Arizona campgrounds list by CampArizona.com.

While I am on business news, the NFRA, our trade group, is having its annual conference March 3-5 in San Diego California.  The conference focuses on privitization of public recreation, and may be of interest to any number of public recreation authorities who are currently struggling with budget issues.  Our company alone runs over 100 public recreation facilities, keeping these facilities open to the public and turning an operating cost for public authorities into a source of income.  I am trying to teach our trade goup to blog, and their formative effort is here.

Welcome, But A Bit Unexpected from the 9th Circuit

This is welcome news for those of us who do business on US Forest Service lands, but pretty surprising coming from the 9th Circuit:

Judges aren't professional land managers.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged as much July 2, after
spending the past few years micromanaging the Forest Service in a
series of court decisions that forest industry groups called
"increasingly aberrant."

In a landmark ruling July 2, the Ninth acknowledged that it erred in
its interpretation of a key environmental law and botched Mineral
County's post-burn case.

"We misconstrued what the NFMA (National Forest Management Act)
requires of the Forest Service," a panel of 11 judges admitted in a
ruling released July 2. "We made three key errors in [the post-burn
case]...Today, we correct those errors."

The
ruling in "Lands Council v. McNair," involving an Idaho project,
overturned a 2-1 decision from 2005 in "Ecology Center v. Austin."
McNair and Austin are the forest supervisors for the Idaho Panhandle
and Lolo national forests, respectively.

The dramatic ruling concluded by suggesting that the Ninth should weigh
other public interests in the future, not just claims of potential
environmental damage.

"Though preserving environmental resources is certainly in the public's
interest, the [Idaho Panhandle] Project benefits the public's interest
in a variety of other ways," the ruling stated. "According to the
Forest Service, the Project will decrease the risk of catastrophic
fire, insect infestation, and disease, and further the public's
interest in aiding the struggling local economy and preventing job
loss."

The US Forest Service's mission is a mixed bag, requiring it to balance mining, timber harvesting, recreation, and environmental preservation on its lands.  Such a mixed mission is virtually doomed to failure in today's political climate.  This virtually impossible balancing act has been made more difficult with the recent explosion of lawsuits from environmental groups all attempting to narrow the USFS mission to preservation alone, to the exclusion of other missions.  The 9th Circuit has to date been a leading facilitator of this process of placing preservation ahead of all other goals, in direct contradiction of the will of Congress in any number of pieces of legislation.

How to Keep State Parks Open in California

Letter I sent to Governor Schwartzenegger in response to his plan to close a number of California State Parks due to budget problems:

I know many people are
probably contacting you to oppose proposed closures of state parks to help meet
budget targets. My message is a bit
different: Closing these parks is
totally unnecessary. 

I own and manage one of the
larger concessionaires in the California State Park (CSP) system. We are the concessionaire at Clear Lake
and Burney Falls. At Burney Falls, for example, we have invested over a million dollars
of our money in a public-private partnership with the state to revamp to the
park. We also operate parks for the
National Park Service, the US Forest Service, Arizona State Parks, Texas
State Parks, and other public authorities.

Traditionally, CSP has
engaged concessionaires to run stores and marinas within parks, but not to run
entire parks. However, in many other
states, our company runs entire parks and campgrounds for other government
authorities, and does so to the highest quality standards. 

So, I can say with confidence
that many of the California State Parks proposed for closure would be entirely
viable as private concessions. For
example, we operate the store and marina at Clear Lake State Park
but
could easily run the entire park and make money doing so, while also paying
rent to the state for the privilege.

I know that there are some
employees of the CSP system that oppose such arrangements with private
companies out of fears for their job security. But it would be a shame to close parks entirely when an opportunity
exists to keep them open to the public, and improve the state budget picture in
doing so. 

Even if California decides to keep these parks open, I would encourage
you to have your staff investigate the possibility of expanding private
operation of state parks. CSP already
has one of the best and most capable concession management programs in the
country, a success you should seek to build on. The infrastructure is already there in CSP to solicit bids for these
projects and ensure that management of them meets the state's quality and
customer service standards.

Even though everything I said here is true, it probably is a non-starter because most state organizations are dead set against such private management.  They would rather close services to the public than establish the precedent of private management. 

Besides, the whole parks closure may well be a bluff.  Unlike private company budget discussions, where it is expected that managers offer up their marginal projects for cuts, the public sector works just opposite:  Politicians propose their most popular areas of spending (parks, emergency services) for cuts in a game of chicken to try to avoid budget cuts altogether.  As I wrote here:

Imagine that you are in a budget meeting at your company.  You and a
number of other department heads have been called together to make
spending cuts due to a cyclical downturn in revenue.  In your
department, you have maybe 20 projects being worked on by 10 people,
all (both people and projects) of varying quality.   So the boss says
"We have to cut 5%, what can you do?"  What do you think her reaction
would be if you said "well, the first thing I would have to cut is my
best project and I would lay off the best employee in my department". 

If this response seems nuts to you, why do we let politicians get
away with this ALL THE TIME?  Every time that politicians are fighting
against budget cuts or for a tax increase, they always threaten that
the most critical possible services will be cut.  Its always emergency
workers that are going to be cut or the Washington Monument that is
going to be closed.  Its never the egg license program that has to be cut.

Update: Here is the form letter the governor's office sent out in response to my letter:

A weakened national economy and auto-pilot state spending has created a projected budget shortfall of $14.5 billion for fiscal year 2008-09. Although state government revenues this coming year are actually forecast to hold steady, the problem is that every year automatic spending formulas increase expenditures.  Left unchecked, next year's budget would need to grow by 7.3-percent, which is $7.6 billion; even booming economies can't meet that kind of increase.  To immediately combat this crisis, the Governor has proposed a 10-percent reduction in nearly every General Fund program from their projected 2008-09 funding levels.  While these reductions are unquestionably painful and challenging, this across-the-board approach is designed to protect essential services by spreading reductions as evenly as possible.

To achieve this difficult reduction, State Parks will be reducing both its permanent and seasonal workforce.  As a result, 48 park units will be closed or partially closed to the public and placed in caretaker status.  By closing parks and eliminating positions, remaining resources can be consolidated and shifted to other parks to provide for services necessary to keep those parks open and operating.  While 48 parks are affected by closures, 230 parks-or 83% of the system-will remain open.

We must reform our state budget process.  Government cannot continue to put people through the binge and purge of our budget process that has now led to park closures.  That's why the Governor has proposed a Budget Stabilization Act.  Under the Governor's plan, when revenues grow, Sacramento would not be able to spend all the money.  Instead, we would set a portion aside in a Revenue Stabilization Fund to stabilize the budget in down years.  If a deficit develops during the year, instead of waiting to accumulate billions of dollars of debt, the Governor's plan would automatically trigger lower funding levels already agreed upon by the Legislature.  Had this system been in place the past decade, we would not be facing a $14.5 billion deficit. 

As Governor Schwarzenegger works with his partners in the Legislature, he will keep your concerns in mind.  With your help, we will turn today's temporary problem into a permanent victory for the people of California.

Campground Bleg

Sorry, this is work-related, but we are considering bidding on the management of campgrounds on Lake Merwin, Yale Lake, and Swift Reservoir near Mt. St. Helens in WA.  Since these facilities are under a lot of snow, I won't be able to get a good feel for them.  Anyone out there familiar with these facilities?  If so, I would love an email or comment post about them, good or bad.

People Without a Country

I have written a number of times about the growing ranks of RVers who have completely abandoned a permanent address and spend their entire life on the road.  I know these folks because I hire about 400 of them every summer to run our campgrounds and recreational facilities.  It is a fascinating subculture, that in some ways mirrors the habits of a great nomadic tribe that roams all over the country but comes together in a few camps to meet and interact in the winter (e.g. Colorado River between Yuma and Quartzite).  The numbers are large:

The Census says more than 105,000 Americans live full-time in RVs,
boats or vans, though one RV group says the number is more like half a
million. Because of their nomadic ways, pinning down their number with
any certainty is difficult.

The AP has an article about how difficult it is becoming for some of these folks to vote, since a number of states are beginning to require a permanent physical address  (most of these folks have PO Boxes run by companies that forward their mail).

A total of 286 people who live full-time in their recreational vehicles
were dropped from the voter rolls in one Tennessee county over the past
two years because they did not have a genuine home address, only a
mailbox. That has left them unable to vote in national or local
elections....

But some elections officials say that voters should have a real
connection to the place where they are casting ballots, and that RVers
are registering in certain states simply to avoid taxes. Some of them
rarely, if ever, set foot in those states.

I guess they need a real connection to their state, kind of like, say, Hillary Clinton had to New York when she ran for the Senate there.  I know that the immediate reaction from many of you may be that this is
somehow weird and, being weird, it is OK to lock them out of voting.
But I can attest these folks are all quite normal people who are
seduced by the ability to live anywhere they want, on the spur of the
moment, and who revel in being able to simplify their life enough to
fit all their worldly goods into an RV and hit the road.

This part is total BS:

David Ellis, the former Bradley County Election Commission director who
started removing full-time RVers, said they have no connection to the
area and are simply "dodging their responsibility to pay their fair
share" of taxes.

RVers pay taxes in the states in which they work, not in their home state  (just like everyone else, by the way).  RVers, who rent their living site, pay the same property taxes (ie zero) that any other renter pays.

For the record, none of my folks have reported a problem.  However, these problems are just going to get worse.  Crackdowns both on illegal immigration and hypothesized terrorism are making more difficult to complete any number of basic tasks, like banking, without a permanent physical address.

Free Camping

Running for-fee campgrounds on public lands often gets us into some controversy.  For example, many people wonder, sometimes in a fairly excitable manner, why they have to pay for camping on public lands when they have already paid their taxes.  The simple answer to this is that Congress and administrations of all flavors have consistently ruled for years that fees rather than taxes should support developed campgrounds.  Read this post for more, or call your Congressman if you don't agree.  Also, here is my company's FAQ on camping fees and private companies operating on public lands.

However, there ARE many free camping opportunities on public lands, but because of Forest Service terminology, these are sometimes missed by the public.  In most cases, when the Forest Service has a named campground, it requires a fee because it has a number of minimum features for the facility:

  • Graded, and sometimes paved, roads and spurs
  • Bathrooms, and sometimes showers
  • Picnic table, tent pad, and fire ring / grill at each site
  • On-site host / security to enforce rules (e.g. quite time)
  • On-site operator with property and liability insurance
  • Water supply that is frequently tested and treated when necessary
  • Hazard tree removal
  • Trash and (for campgrounds not on a sewer system) sewage removal
  • Leaf blowing from trails and roads, site raking, painting, etc.

This stuff does cost money, and so the typical campground we run charges $12-14 a night, with 50% off for Golden Access patrons (i.e. senior citizens).  Heck, the insurance alone costs about $1.50 per night's stay, thanks to our friends in the tort bar.

However, most National Forests offer what is called dispersed camping.  This is camping out in the wilderness, without any amenities, and, at least in most cases, is totally free.  Most of these camping areas don't have names, just locations and boundaries.   Expect to give up all of the above amenities, and be ready to pack your trash out, but you can still pitch your tent out in nature without charge.  And in many of these locations, you can get far away from other campers.  Just call the local ranger district (contact info here) and ask them for information on dispersed camping.

One proviso - the biggest problem with these dispersed, non-hosted areas is, if they are heavily used, they can be a worse experience than the paid campgrounds.  They can accumulate trash from thoughtless patrons, and they can get very rowdy.  Dispersed campgrounds attract the best of campers - those truly trying to get a natural experience; and the worst of campers - those who don't want to follow rules, don't clean up after themselves, and who don't want to shut down their loud partying just because it is two in the morning.  Many people who initially opposed paid camping are now big believers, since they have learned to value campgrounds with rules and security after a few late nights listening to loud generators and drunken parties.  Talk to the ranger district to know what you are getting into at a particular site.

My First Wikipedia Post

I find I link to Wikipedia a lot for explanations of terms I use that people may not be familiar with (the most recent being "badger game" in this post).  So, to return the favor of all those who have written the Wikipedia, I wrote my contribution, adding an entry on Workamping.  It required about an hours worth of time invested learning their formatting commands and best practices, but it turned out to be pretty easy.  It was kind of interesting to see the other niche areas I have knowledge about but for which there are no articles yet.  I am currently adding and editing content for model railroading.

Forest Service Campgrounds Free in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi

One of my company's primary businesses is to operate National Forest campgrounds.  We have been told that starting immediately, and for an unspecified period of time, many of the campgrounds in the US Forest Service in East Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi will be waiving camping fees for the foreseeable future.  We have been told that anyone can camp for free, and that they do not need to prove they are a hurricane refugee, nor do they even have to be from one of the affected states, to get the free camping.  The Texas Campgrounds we operate are now free to campers, but we have been instructed to still charge fees for day use and for purchases (such as for firewood).  The number of states affected may be larger than just these three, but so far the campgrounds we operate in Kentucky, Florida, and New Mexico are still charging fees.  Update:  campgrounds in Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma are also included, see below.

Texas_campground2 Texas_campground1_2

Subsidizing camping for refugees makes sense, though I am not sure why the Feds are subsidizing camping for everyone, but I guess they despaired of coming up with a fair way to separate homeless refugees from regular campers, so they made it free to everyone.  I have not been instructed whether the usual 14-day stay limit enforced by the Forest Service is still in effect, but I will assume it is until informed otherwise.  The 14-day stay limit has also been waived.

Update:  OK, here is the release:

FOREST SERVICE WAIVES CAMPGROUND FEES FOR HURRICANE KATRINA SURVIVORS

Washington, Sept.3, 2005 - The USDA Forest Service is taking another
step to assist survivors of Hurricane Katrina by temporarily rescinding
the fee requirement for campgrounds and the 14-day stay limit for
camping on some National Forest System lands in the Southern Region.
The normal fee range is $4.00 to $25.00 depending on the location.

The forests offering free camping include the Kisatchie National Forest
in Louisiana, the National Forests of Alabama, the Ozark-St. Francis
National Forest in Arkansas, the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas
and Oklahoma and the National Forests and Grasslands of Texas. In all,
106 campgrounds are open without charge to victims of Hurricane Katrina
as they transition through these first weeks of the disaster.

Per comment below, an update on free camping opportunities here.

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Forest Service May Close Recreation Sites

Frequent readers of this site may know that my day job is running a company that manages recreation sites under concession contract to a number of public landowners, including the US Forest Service.  I take a lot of pride in this job, as our company helps keep recreation facilities open that the government might not have the personnel or the skills or the money to run.  The Forest Service's budget gets cut about every year, such that tax money comes nowhere near covering the cost of managing recreation sites.

Of late, the Forest Service has begun looking to actually close some recreation facilities:

The cash-strapped
U.S. Forest Service can no longer afford to maintain many of its parks
and has started ranking recreational sites, including campgrounds and
trail heads, for possible closure.

Supporters of public lands generally hate the onset of fee-based recreation, and wish it was still possible for all public recreation facilities to be free.  This was a realistic goal back when recreation facilities were cheap to run, but today campgrounds and other such facilities can be tremendously expensive(a single large campground might cost as much as a half million a year to operate), in large part due to actions by the same people who support free use of public lands.  Some examples:

  • 50 years ago, campgrounds labor was essentially free because it could be staffed with volunteers.  With current labor laws, this is no longer possible (even if people still want to volunteer), and a large campground can require hundreds of thousands of dollars of labor to maintain each year, even at minimum wage.
  • 50 years ago, people in the outdoors just drank water from a stream or out of the hand pump.  Today, in certain complexes, we spend tens of thousands of dollars keeping water systems in compliance with complex state laws.
  • 50 years ago, if someone tripped over a root in the forest or twisted their ankle on a rock, they accepted that as a normal risk of being out in nature.  Today, everyone calls their lawyer.  Each year, campground visitors file millions of dollars of lawsuits for accidents once thought to be normal hazards of nature.
  • 50 years ago, active timber sales in the forest helped fund recreation programs.  Today, timber sales in many forests are at an all time low, due in large part to opposition by nature lovers

So, I admit I don't know the person who said this:

"They will close
those sites the public has always enjoyed but which they cannot afford
because they are not profitable," said Scott Silver of the Bend group
Wild Wilderness. "It's the complete perversion of the meaning of public
lands."

But I would bet quite a bit that he supports some or all of the laws and government regulations listed above that make running recreation facilities so much more expensive than 50 years ago.

Update: By the way, though I might disagree with Scott Silver on the necessity of use fees at developed facilities like campgrounds or boat ramps, he is dead on in certain respects:

  • Politicians love to fund splashy new recreation projects, but hate to fund basic maintenance.  This means that at the same time campgrounds and facilities are closing due to lack of maintenance dollars, new facilities are being opened all the time.  This strikes me as absurd. 
  • Recreation facilities on public lands are missing the boat when they attempt to emulate private operations too much.  There are plenty of KOA's next to the interstate with pools and video game rooms.  Campgrounds on public lands have typically taken a different approach and served a different niche, that of providing a more primitive experience closer to nature, and I think its a mistake when they move away from this approach.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, I will never be able to see eye-to-eye with such groups because they refuse to acknowledge that as a private company I can be anything but Darth Vader with secret plans to put up a Walmart in Yosemite or put up billboards along a nature trail.  Crusading socialists often have the funniest ideas about the profit motive.  For example, if I make most of my money at a recreation site catering to people who want a wilderness experience, why in the world would I do anything to interfere with that experience?  It does not matter what the situation or the facts or the company, the first arguments are always that private companies just want to take a natural setting and put up advertising, then build a shopping mall.

By the way, Mr. Silver sees conspiracies among the private recreation companies.  I have sat on some committees in the "evil" organizations he cites, and I will tell you with complete assurance that these groups would have trouble crafting a successful plan to buy a 6-pack of beer from the local 7-11, much less shape government policy to their ends.  But maybe I got left out of all the really cool SPECTRE-type meetings. 

Looking for Pyramid Lake Help from SoCal Readers

I have gotten some nice, supportive feedback from my earlier post on my frustration with the recent oil spill at Pyramid Lake, California.  So much so that I would like to ask any readers who are familiar with Pyramid Lake (the one in LA county, not the larger one in Nevada) to send me an email -- We are considering a few new services at the park and some approaches to cut down on the long waits to get on the boat ramp, and I would like to discuss them with a few smart blog readers.

Distributed Stupidity and the Anti-Lottery

This is a great post from Brian Micklethwait of Samizdata describing government as "distributed stupidity" and demonstrating how we all face an anti-lottery every day as more arbitrary laws are piled on top of us:

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there is now a
crisis of excessive lawmaking in the West generally, and in the
Anglo-Saxon world in particular. It is not that our political class is
hell bent on tyrranny, impure and simple. It is more that they have
become legislative entrepreneurs, so to speak. And just as a
businessman who is delighted to make a fast buck selling mobile phones
does not bother himself about the grief inflicted by railway travellers
with mobiles on other railway travellers, so too, lawmakers who are
"aiming" at one particular group of alleged wrongdoers have a tendency
to neglect what you might call legislative collateral damage. The laws
pile up, and the other legislators, the ones who you would hope would
be sitting there solemnly trying to limit that collateral damage,
neglect that duty, because they are too busy hustling through other
little laws of their own, aimed at other preferred clutches of alleged
wrongdoers. Laws go straight from legislative entrepreneurs to
government regulators, without no intervening process of scrutiny that
is worthy of that adjective.

Which means that government regulators are then tempted to mutate
into what you might call regulatory entrepreurs. They cannot possible
enforce all their laws, rules and regulations. There are not enough
hours in the history of universe for that to happen. So, just like the
legislative entrepreneurs, they also lose sight of the big picture (it
having become too big to bother with) and decide for themselves which
regulations to take seriously. How? Any way they please. In accordance
with what rules? Whichever ones they decide to go with.

Add a dash of right wing fervour (a point which Go Directly to Jail
apparently brings out very strongly) about crime being very, very bad
and having to be fought with implacable ferocity, and to hell with
those silly old legal safeguards, and you end up with a kind of
anti-lottery instead of a government. Any person, at any moment, is
liable to be picked on and turned into a criminal. At any moment, in
the words of those British National Lottery adverts, it could be
you-ou!!! And everyone is obliged to enter this one.

Theres more, and its all good.