Posts tagged ‘camping’

Our Business's Response to California $2 Minimum Wage Increase

Well, we have completed our response to minimum wage increases in California.   As a review, California is raising its minimum wage from $8 to $10 (or 25%)  in two steps starting this July 1.  I will confess that in some of these cases the causes are complex, and are not just due to minimum wage changes but also other creeping California regulatory issues (particularly the first two).

  • Suspended operation and closed on large campground in Ventura County that employed about 25 people
  • Suspended investment / expansion plans at two other campgrounds
  • Raised prices everywhere else, on average adding $3 to a $20 camping fee.   (this is inevitable when wages are increased 25% in a business where more than half the costs are tied to wages and margins are around 5%)

The only reason I take the time to write this is that I think this tends to demonstrate that 1) minimum wage increases can have a real economic impact and 2) just looking at job losses after the date the wage takes effect can miss most of this economic impact.

To this latter point, a lot of the impact is not necessarily job losses.  We see lost investment, which perhaps means fewer jobs in the future but there is no way to measure that.  We see price increases, which affects consumers and disposable income.  And we see some job losses, but note that the job losses were 6 months before the law goes into effect.

We are left with a certainty that the minimum wage had a real economic effect but a suspicion that, at least in this case, that effect would not be measured.

By the way, there may also be a lesson here for those who believe that the entire problem in the economy is one of not enough aggregate demand.  In the last month I walked away from a million dollars a year of demand, because it was impossible to serve profitably, in large part due to regulatory issues.

Measure of the Job Market

The other day I sent out an email listing a job opening next summer for camp hosts.  The job was in an out of the way place (in Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon) and had been hard to fill.  I have a list of 22,000 people who have asked to have camping jobs sent to them.

The email batch of 22,000 had a 54% open rate.  That is ridiculously high.

The Problem with Job Discrimination Legislation

Congress is considering adding gays and lesbians to the list of protected groups covered by the EEOC.  As former chairman of a group that tried to get gay marriage legalized in Arizona (at least until we were shot down by gay rights groups that did not want libertarians or Republicans  helping to lead the effort), I hope I don't have to prove that I have no problem with differences in sexual orientation.  But I have a big problem with Federal employment discrimination law.

If you are unfamiliar with how it works, this is perhaps how you THINK it works:  An employee, who has been mistreated in a company based on clear prejudice for his or her race / gender / sexual orientation, etc. has tried to bring the problem to management's attention.  With no success via internal grievance processes, the employee turns finally to the government for help.

Ha!  If this were how it worked, I would have no problem with the law.  In reality, this is how it works:  Suddenly, as owner of the company, one finds a lawsuit or EEOC complain in his lap, generally with absolutely no warning.  In the few cases we have seen in our company, the employee never told anyone in the company about the alleged harassment, never gave me or management a chance to fix it, despite very clear policies in our employee's manuals that we don't tolerate such behavior and outlining methods for getting help.  There is nothing in EEO law that requires an employee to try to get the problem fixed via internal processes.

As a result, our company can be financially liable for allowing a discriminatory situation to exist that we could not have known about, because it happened in a one-on-one conversations and the alleged victim never reported it.

What I want is a reasonable chance to fix problems, get rid of bad supervisors, etc.  A reasonable anti-discrimination law would say that companies have to have a grievance process with such and such specifications, and that no one may sue until they have exhausted the grievance process or when there is no conforming grievance process.  If I don't fix the problem and give the employee a safe work environment, then a suit is appropriate.  The difference between this reasonable goal and the system we actually have is lawyers.  Lawyers do not want the problem to be fixed.  Lawyers want the problem to be as bad as possible and completely hidden from management so there is no chance it can be fixed before they can file a lucrative lawsuit.

I worry in particular about how this will play out with a new gay/lesbian discrimination law.  We have employed a number of gay couples over the years, and never had any particular internal issue  (I had to defend one couple in Florida from a set of customers who thought that it was inherently dangerous to employ gay people around children camping, but I did so gladly).  But I know I have employees who have religious beliefs different form my own such that they think gay people are damned, evil, whatever.  So now what do I do when I have one of these religious folks in conflict with an employee who is gay?  If I don't separate them, I am going to get sued by the gay person for a hostile work environment.  If I move the gay person, I will get sued for gay discrimination.  If I move or fire the religious person, I will get sued for religious discrimination.

I am happy to work hard to build a respectful, safe work environment, but such laws put me as a business owner in no-win situations.  And the lawyers who craft this stuff consider this a feature, not a bug.  Heads I sue you, tails I sue you.

Should I Resort to Civil Disobedience And Re-Open Our Privately-Funded Parks?

I have gotten a lot of mail with moral support from readers as we try to deal with the fact that the White House has ordered privately-funded parks in the National Forest to close, flying in the face of all precedent and budget logic.

Many, many emails have encouraged me to disobey the order and keep the parks open for the public.  There are three reasons why I have chosen not to do so.

1.  Respect for Contract:  In my 25 or so lease contracts with the US Forest Service (the USFS insists on calling them "special use permits" but legally they are essentially commercial leases), the contract language gives the Forest Supervisor of each Forest the right to suspend or terminate the contract for virtually any reason.  Yeah, I know, this is a crappy lop-sided contract provision, but welcome to the world of working with the Federal government.  So each Forest Supervisor has the right to suspend our lease.  BUT....

The real question here is whether they have proper justification for doing so, or whether their suspension is arbitrary.  In another post I discuss why this action is arbitrary and unjustified:

Historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

While we feel good we have a winning argument, this is a complicated point that does not lend itself well to civil disobedience, but we are taking it to court and seeking an injunction to the closure.

2.  The wrong people would go to jail.  Civil disobedience has a long and honorable history in this country.  But the honor of such an act would quickly go out the window if I were to commit an act of defiance but others would have to go to jail.  We run over a hundred sites.  Telling my people to remain open would simply lead to getting my employees thrown in jail for trusting me and following my instructions.  That would be awful.  Just as bad, we can see from examples in the National Park Service that such disobedience would potentially subject my customers to legal harassment.  It's not brave or honorable for me to be defiant but to have others pay the cost.

3.  I could lose everything.  I don't want to seem weak-kneed here, but I would be dishonest not to also raise the small but critical point that I have almost every dollar I own tied up in this company, which does over half its business in the National Forest**.  My retirement and all my savings are in this one basket.   I would likely risk an arrest and a few hours in jail plus the price of bail and months of court appearances to make a point here.  I am not ready to go all-in with everything I own, not when there are other legal avenues still available.  If that makes me a wimp, so be it.

 

** you can be assured that the moment I have one minute of extra time we are going to be working on diversifying away from the US Forest Service as much as possible.

Why The Shutdown of Concessionaires is Arbitrary and Capricious

We are preparing to go to court to reopen privately-funded parks in the US Forest service that take no Federal money, yet have recently been closed due to budget shortfalls.

Our USFS contracts give the local Forest Supervisor the right to suspend the contract.  However, historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

Regulatory Suffocation

Taxes are usually the heart of the discussion when people talk about the bad business climate in California.  And certainly their taxes are just insanely high.  But for folks like me, an even bigger barrier is the regulatory environment. We are closing several operations in California at the end of this year mainly because we are just exhausted with the compliance costs and regulatory barriers to expansion.    In Ventura County, for example, we have  a camping operation that has never made money because it is under-scale. We have the capital and desire to expand it, but it has just proven impossible to do so.

A big reason for this is the regulation in California and in Ventura County.    We once had to get something like 7 permits just to remove a dangerous and dilapidated deck.  We added a 500 gallon fuel tank for fueling boats (to eliminate the unsafe practice of driving in and out of town with about 100 5-gallon fuel containers) and it took over 3-years of trekking to multiple county and state offices to get it permitted.  We thus despaired of trying to get a campground expansion approved.   Approximately the same expansion that cost us just under a million dollars in Alabama several years ago was going to cost over $5 million and Ventura County, and the County was still piling on requirements when we gave up.  And this is even before we fart with crazy California break laws and other nuttiness.

I have often told folks that I would love to see a liberal defender of all this regulatory overreach try to construct and open a restaurant in Ventura County.  It would be fascinating to watch.   (All this musing was touched off by this article on underground restaurants that try to sidestep this regulatory cost and mess).  We are a service business and California still has a lot of money, so we still operate in California.  But I continue to wonder why any company, like a manufacturer, remains in California.  Sell there yes, but produce anything you can out of state and ship it in.  Even as a service business we do a bit of this, no longer stick-building anything but having all our buildings, cabins, stores, etc built in Arizona as modular buildings and then shipped to California.  Even our labor force is partially "imported", as we hire folks who live in their RV's to come from all over the country to live and work at our campgrounds.

As I read the other day, if Silicon Valley were not already in California, would anyone in their right mind put it there?

Postscript:  One other story:  California's regulatory environment has caused a real shift in the culture as well.  At one location that we are closing this year, a local attorney has regular dinner meetings with groups of our employees to brainstorm among the group to see if they can come up with something to sue us over.

Discrimination: The All-Purpose Accusation

Today I got three letters with a subject line and/or opening sentence accusing me of discrimination.  Here are the three complaints:

  1. A camper did not get the $8 senior discount to which he was entitled, in large part because my new employee did not recognize his very old-style government recreation access card (I processed a refund immediately).
  2. A 20-year-old accused me of age discrimination when we told her she was too young to work in a store, despite the fact our manager explained patiently several times that we are prevented by law from hiring minors to sell alcoholic beverages
  3. A camper accused me of discrimination because we would not let him occupy a site clearly marked as having been reserved by another camper (who had not yet arrived).  This obviously is odd -- I am discriminating against people without reservations for reserved sites?

None of these folks appear to be a part of a legally protected group, nor did they site any treatment they received that was different from similarly situated people at the same location.  They just didn't like a particular policy and wanted to complain, but have been taught by society that the best way to get attention is to claim DISCRIMINATION -- sort of like a witchcraft accusation in the 17th century.

All of this is to answer the question of why someone like myself who has vocally supported gays and gay marriage for decades would oppose legislation naming homosexuals as another government-protected class.  I have defended openly gay employees of mine against ignorant accusations that their homosexuality somehow posed dangers to the kids camping at the park they helped to maintain.   But discrimination law makes me crazy.   Think of it this way -- bad things happen to everyone from time to time.  I am a white male, but despite this status I have gotten turned down for jobs, have been laid off from jobs, and frequently have received bad, even rude customer service.  Everybody does.     Discrimination law often takes these typical day-to-day indignities we all face and converts them, literally, into a Federal case.

Never Miss A Good Opportunity to Shut Up

It strikes me that a service business model that relies on frequently suing your customers is not really sustainable.

My folks out in the field operating campground face far greater problems with customers than any of these petty complaints that Suburban Express is taking to court.  My folks have drunks in their face almost every weekend screaming obscenities at them.  We have people do crazy things to avoid paying small entry fees.  We get mostly positive reviews online but from time to time we inevitably get a negative review with which we disagree (e.g. from the aforementioned drunk who was ticked off we made him stop driving).

And you know how many of these folks we have taken to court in 10 years?  Zero.  Because unless your customer is reneging on some contractual obligation that amounts to a measurable percentage of your net worth, you don't take them to court.

Yes, it is satisfying from an ego perspective to contemplate taking action against some of them.  There are always "bad customers" who don't act in civilized and honorable ways.   But I  tell my folks that 1)  You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes.  And 2) you are just risking escalating the situation into something we don't want.  As did Suburban Express in the linked article.

The first thing one has to do in the customer service business is check one's ego at the door.  I have front-line employees that simply refuse to defuse things with customers (such as apologize for the customer's bad experience even if we were not reasonably the cause).  They will tell me that they refuse to apologize, that it was a "bad customer".   This is all ego.  I tell them, "you know what happens if you don't apologize and calm the customer down?  The customer calls me and I apologize, and probably give him a free night of camping to boot."  In the future, if this dispute goes public, no one is going to know how much of a jerk that customer was at the time.  Just as no one knows about these students in the Suburban Express example - some may have been  (likely were) drunken assholes.  But now the company looks like a dick for not just moving on.

This is all not to say I am perfect.  It is freaking amazingly easy to forget my own rule about checking one's ego at the door.  I sometimes forget it when dealing with some of the public agencies with which I am under contract.  One of the things you learn early about government agencies is that long-time government employees have never been inculcated with a respect for contract we might have in the private world.  If internal budget or rules changes make adhering to our contract terms difficult, they will sometimes ignore or unilaterally change the terms of our written contract.

And then I will get really pissed off.  Sometimes, I have to -- the changes are substantial and costly enough to matter.  But a lot of the time it is just ego.  The changes are small and de minimis from our financial point of view but I get all worked up, writing strings of eloquent and argumentative emails and letters, to show those guys at the agency just how wrong they are.  And you know what?  Just like I tell my folks, the guys on the other end are not going to change.  They are not bad people, but they have grown up all their lives in government work and have been taught to believe that contract language is secondary to complying with their internal bureaucratic rules.  They are never going to change.  All I am doing is ticking them off with my letters that are trying to count intellectual coup on them.

To this end, I think I am going to tape these two lines from Ken White's post on the wall in front of my desk

  • First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  • Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand.

Gee, I Wonder Why Teen Unemployment Is So High?

I just opened a summer-seasonal camping business in Washington state.  Given that I mainly need relatively unskilled help landscaping and cleaning up from Memorial Day to Labor Day, one would think that this would be a natural place for high school kids to look for work.

Well, check out my new Washington business license.   This is not something unusual for me, it's the standard form issued to all businesses.  Check out the last line.

You can do anything you want, but for God sakes don't employ any high school kids over the summer.

Sorry teens.  I don't know what kind of special application is required to get the state's permission to employ you, and I don't have time to find out -- particularly since whatever additional license to hire teenagers that I need to obtain is likely to entail all kinds of onerous special rules and reporting requirements.

Update:  I get asked this a lot when I post such business licenses.  "Foreign Profit Corporation" does not mean that I am based in Sri Lanka, "foreign" in this context means that my original corporate registration is in another state.

I will give kudos to WA state on one dimension -- most states will issue me separate numbers for my withholding account, my sales tax account, my workers comp account, my unemployment account, my secretary of state registration, etc.  WA issues a single number for everything.

Public Employee Compensation Packages

I am with Megan McArdle in confirming that the non-pay portions of the typical public employee compensation package is at least as important, and as potentially expensive, as the money itself.  In particular, two aspects of many public employee compensation packages would be intolerable in my service business:

  • Inability to fire anyone in any reasonable amount of time
  • Work rules and job classifications

From time to time I hire seemingly qualified people who are awful with customers.  They yell at customers, or are surly and impatient with them, or ruin their camping stay with nit-picky nagging on minor campground rules issues.  In my company, these people quickly become non-employees.  In the public sector they become... 30 year DMV veterans.  Only in a world of government monopoly services can bad performance or low productivity be tolerated, mainly because the customer has no other option.  In my world, the customer has near-infinite other options.  And don't even get me started on liability -- when liability laws have been restructured so that I am nearly infinitely liable for the actions of my least responsible employee, I have to be ruthless about culling bad performance.

The same is true of work rules.  Forget productivity for a moment.  Just in terms of customer service, every one of my employees has to be able to solve customer problems.  I can't automatically assume customers will approach the firewood-seller employee for firewood.  All my employees need to be able to sell firewood, or empty a trash can when it needs emptying, or clean a bathroom if the regular cleaner is sick, or whatever.

For those who really believe state workers in Wisconsin are underpaid, I would ask this question:  Which of you business people out there would hire the average Wisconsin state worker for their current salary, benefits package, lifetime employment, work rules, grievance process, etc?  If they are so underpaid, I would assume they would get snapped up, right?  Sure.

Bonus advice to young people:  Think long and hard before you take that government job right out of college.  It may offer lifetime employment, but the flip side is that you may need it.  Here is what I mean:

When people leave college, they generally don't have a very good idea how to work in an organization, how to work under authority, how to manage people, how to achieve goals in the context of an organization's goals, etc.   You may think you understand these things from group projects at school or internships, but you don't.  I certainly didn't.

The public and private sector have organizations that work very differently, with different kinds of goals and performance expectations.  Decision-making processes are also very different, as are criteria for individual success within the organization.  Attitudes about risk, an in particular the adherence to process vs. getting results, are entirely different.

I am trying hard to be as non-judgmental in these comparisons as I can for this particular post.  I know good people in government service, and have hired a few good people out of government.  But the culture and incentives they work within are foreign to those of us who work in the private world, and many of the things we might ascribe to bad people in government are really due to those bad incentives.

It is a fact you should understand that many private employers consider a prospective employee to have been "ruined" by years of government work, particularly in their formative years.  This is simply a fact you will need to deal with (it could well be the reverse is true of government hiring, but I have no experience with it).  That is why, for the question I asked above about hiring Wisconsin government workers, the answer for many employers would be "no" irregardless of pay.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

My new column is up this week at Forbes.  This week it discusses the regulatory burden on small businesses.  Here is an excerpt:

Typically taxation issues get a lot more attention than these regulatory issues in discussions of government drags on the economy. But these small regulations, licenses, and approvals consume management time, the most valuable commodity in small businesses that typically are driven by the energy and leadership of just one or two people. If getting a certain license is a tremendous hassle in California, large corporations have specialized staff they throw at the problem. When a company like ours gets that dreaded call that the County wants a soil sample from under the parking lot, odds are that the owner has to deal with it personally.

So the ultimate cost of many of these silly little regulations is that they each act as a friction that wears away a bit more available time from entrepreneurs and small business owners. The entrepreneur who has to spend two hundred hours of her personal time getting all the licenses in place for a new restaurant is unlikely to have the time to start a second location any time soon. Since small businesses typically drive most new employment growth in the United States, can it be a surprise that new hiring has slowed?

Incredibly, after the column was in the can, I experienced another perfect example of this phenomenon.

In the camping business, July 4 is the busiest day of the year.  This year, on July 3, I got a call from one of my managers saying that the County health department had tested 20 ground squirrels in the area and found one with the plague.  I know this sounds frighteningly medieval, but for those of you who live out west, you may know that some percentage of all the cute little western rodents, from prairie dogs to chipmunks, carry the plague.  Its why its a bad idea for your kids and dogs to play with them.

Anyway, in the past, we have usually been required to post warnings in the area giving safety tips to campers to avoid these animals, what to do if one is bitten, etc.  At the same time, we then begin a program of poisoning all the lairs we can find.  It's about the only time any government body anywhere lets us kill anything, because only the hardest core PETA types will swoon over rubbing out a rodent carrying the black death.

But apparently, in the past when these mitigation approaches applied, the county health department was not in a budget crunch and in need of high-profile PR stories that would reinforce with taxpayers the need to fund their organization.  This time the health department marched out and closed the campground on July 4 weekend, kicking out campers from all 70 sites.  We spent the day dealing with angry customers, refunding money, and trying to find them new lodging on a weekend where most everything was booked up.  Fortunately we have a large overflow area at a nearby campground and offered everyone a special rate over there.

It is hard to imagine that, given the whole year to test, they just suddenly happened to find a problem at one of the busiest sites in the LA area on the busiest weekend of the year, particularly since they simultaneously changed their mitigation approach from notification to closure.   I have tried hard to find the original time stamp on the press release they sent out.  I can't prove it, but it sure seemed like a lot of media had the story before we (operating the campground) had been informed of a thing.  Incredibly, the health department was directing the campers to a nearby campground that was easily close enough to our campground to share the same rodent populations.  But that campground had not had a positive plague test.  Why?  Because that campground has not been tested recently, at least according to the official who brought us the news.  We're in very good hands.

Glass Houses

I was forwarded an email today, and I can't honestly figure out the source since it is one of those that has been forwarded a zillion times, but at some point it passed through the Arizona 2010 Project.  It consisted mainly of pictures of desert areas along major immigration routes that had been trashed by illegal immigrants.  This picture is pretty typical.

Certainly an ugly site, particularly for someone who lives and works in the outdoors as I do.

Here is a quote, I think from the original email but it may have been from one of the forwarders (emphasis added):

This layup is on an 'illegal super - highway' from Mexico to the USA (Tucson) used by human smugglers.

This layup area is located in a wash area approximately .5 of a mile long just south of Tucson.

We estimate there are over 3000 discarded back packs in this layup area. Countless water containers, food wrappers, clothing, and soiled baby diapers. And as you can see in this picture, fresh footprints leading right into it. We weren't too far behind them.

As I kept walking down the wash, I was sure it was going to end just ahead, but I kept walking and walking, and around every corner was more and more trash!

And of course the trail leading out of the layup area heading NORTH to Tucson, then on to your town tomorrow.

They've already come through here. Is this America the Beautiful?  Or another landfill?

The trash left behind by the illegals is another of the Environmental Disasters to hit the USA. Had this been done in one of our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks areas there would be an uprising of the American people........but this is remote Arizona-Mexican border.

Well, it so happens my life is spent cleaning up public parks.  My company's mission is to privately operate public parks.  A lot of that job is picking up and hauling away the trash.  And I can tell you something with absolute certainty:  This is exactly what a highly trafficked area in our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks would look like if someone wasn't there to pick up.  Here is one example from a northwest forest, in Oregon:

We run busy campgrounds and day use areas all over the country, and you would not believe the trash on the ground on a Monday morning.  And this is after the place was cleaned on Sunday morning and with trash cans available every 10 feet to throw things away correctly.  I have seen a few areas in the National Forest that were busy ad hoc camping areas -- meaning they had no facilities, no staff, and no trash cans -- and they were absolutely trashed by good old red-blooded American citizens.  Parts looked no different than this picture.  Most of these areas have since been closed, because of this ecological damage.

In fact, in my presentation I make to public agencies about our services, I say that we are actually in the environmental preservation business.  By attracting recreators to defined areas of the wilderness where we have staff to clean up after the visitors and limit their impact on nature, we are helping to preserve the other 99% of the land.

So, yes this is ugly, but it frustrates me that this is used to play into the Joe Arpaio type stereotypes of Mexicans

All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There's no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don't check people? No one talks about that! They're all dirty. I sent out 200 inmates into the desert, they picked up 18 tons of garbage that they bring in"”the baby diapers and all that. Where's everybody who wants to preserve the desert?"

To my mind, this is an argument against Mexican immigration in the same way that violence against women is used as an argument against legalizing prostitution.  Prostitutes suffer abuse in large part because their profession is illegal which limits their access to the legal system when victimized, not because violence is inherent to their profession.  Trash in a wash in the desert is a result of the illegality of immigration that forces people into stream beds rather than city check points when they enter the country.

Postscript #1: Please, if you are a good, clean, thoughtful user of public parks, do not write me thinking I have dissed you.  I have not.  Most of our visitors are great and thoughtful, and we really appreciate that.  But it takes only a few to make an unbelievable mess.

Postscript #2: I am willing to believe that poorly educated immigrants have fewer litter taboos than we have been acculturated with.   But I have seen enough to say that no ethnic group out there should be too smug.  For God sakes, there had to be a large effort near the top of Mt. Everest to clean up a huge dump that had accumulated of oxygen bottles and other trash near the summit.   Here are pictures of what rich Americans and Europeans do on Mt Everest when they are hiking and there is no trash can nearby:

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.

Public vs. Private

I believe most of my regular readers know that in my day job I am involved in privatization of public recreation.  For fairly obvious reasons, I never blog about the public recreation agencies with whom I work.  In particular, I don't think its fair that an agency that is at least visionary enough to consider private management of its recreation have its dirty laundry spread all over my blog.

But there is one situation with a particular state parks organization that is driving me so crazy that I must share the story publicly, but I will do so without revealing the state. I have no reason to believe that what I describe is unusual.

The state parks organization runs a bit fewer than thirty parks and campgrounds, whereas our company runs over 150 public parks and campgrounds.  Their total operation budget for parks is about the same as my company's annual expenses.  The state parks organization gets about 20% of all its labor hours donated for free by volunteers, whereas we are prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act from accepting volunteer labor.  Their parks are spread all over a large state, ours are spread from Washington to Florida.

By scale and scope, our company is reasonably considered larger and more complex, though the state has some reporting requirements I do not have.  There are two major differences between us, though, which are telling:

  1. Including myself, our company has 3.5 people on the corporate staff with total corporate office space of about 700 sq ft. -- everyone else is dedicated to and works at a particular facility.  This state parks organization has scores of people working in a dedicated headquarters building with tens of thousands of square feet of space.
  2. Demand for public recreation is booming, as people are looking for low cost recreation opportunities.  Our pre-season camping reservations, for example, are at an all time high.  We have had to scrape deep, but we are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expansion money this year to address opportunities to serve more visitors.  This state parks organization is cutting back parks.  It has closed a number of parks, and plans to close more, and has cut most of its investment.  To my knowledge, it has done nothing to address headquarters staff costs, nor is it able by state rules to take any credit in its budget for expected increases in park fee collections.

The staff level bureaucracy problem is just endemic to government.  I would love to look at the growth of staffing of public schools by type of employee over the last 30 years -- my bet would be that the total number of teachers is flat to down while the number of administrators and assistant principals have skyrocketed.

Update: I have had parks employees writing me guessing that I was writing about their organization.  They made the point that their parks organization is not comparable to ours, as their organization had been saddled with a number of non-recreation missions that were expensive (e.g. preservation, certain environmental goals, historical interpretation, etc)  This is certainly true, though not of every parks organization or necesarily the one about which I was writing.  But one could argue that this kind of mission creep is a failure point in public agencies.  While there are incentives for this to occur in both public and private organizations, there are fewer corrective mechanisms in the publis sphere to push back.  In fact, in the public sphere, new missions are a blessing because they often carry new funding.  In the private sector, new missions threaten to dillute results and are more resented.

Update on the Arizona Minimum Wage

The Arizona minimum wage is going up again:

The annual increase is the third since voters approved the minimum-wage initiative by a 2-1 ratio in 2006. This year's increase is 5 percent. At $7.25 an hour, the wage is up nearly 41 percent from December 2006 but still only about half of the state's median wage of $14.25, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce.

Oh my God!  You mean the minimum is still below the median?  (Sorry, that is a bit off-topic, but I just can never resist making fun of journalist's understanding of math and statistics).

In just over two years, the minimum wage is up over 41%.  As a company that employs a lot of minimum wage workers in Arizona, I thought I would report on the impact to date.  As a quick background, my company runs campgrounds (and other recreation facilities) all across the country.  We typically employ retired couples who live in their RV onsite and work both for the free camp site as well as a wage, usually minimum wage.  In a good year, our business makes between 6-8% pre-tax profit on sales, which I can tell you is a thin, thin cushion given all of my life's savings are locked up in this one investment.

I don't know where minimum wage supporters think the extra money comes from to pay higher wages.  If they think at all, I suppose they would say that the government is in effect collective bargaining for these workers and getting businesses to cough up some of their immense profits to pay a bit better wage.

Well, our labor costs are about 50% of revenues  (we are a service business).  This 50% is not just wages, but other costs calculated as a percent of wages, such as FICA, medicare, and unemployment taxes and workers comp premiums.  So, if I still want to earn a living for myself, and the state says half my costs must go up by 41%, then it means that prices are going up 20+%.  And that is what has happened.   Remember, at the same time, fuel prices, electricity prices, insurance prices, and everything else has gone up, so that camping prices have risen by 20% or more.  But there is a limit to how far we can push prices, particularly since our typical customer tends to be relatively low-income.  So we are pursuing two other longer term responses:

  • We are increasingly turning to automation solutions, like automatic pay systems and gates, to replace people.  While we like to have someone actually there to answer questions and to help visitors, fee collection machines work 24 hours, are not subject to overtime rules, they never get hurt, they never sue us, and the government never passes laws to increase their price.
  • We are changing our operating strategy from hiring retired couples who live on-site to hiring younger workers.  This is a change I really hate.  The business model of hiring retired folks who live on-site at a campground is an old and successful one.  Folks in their seventies (and I even have workers in their eighties and nineties) don't work very fast, and they have more workers comp claims, but they had the ability to live on-site and life experience that helped them with customer service.  But trade-offs that worked at $5.15 an hour don't work as well at $7.25 and higher.  So far only selectively, but we are hiring younger folks from the local community to come in and do some of the janitorial and maintenance work.  Even if I pay them $8 or $10 an hour, they make sense if they can be twice as productive.

Lucky Here Too

Travis writes about how a customer of his web service tracked him down at home at gave him a 40-minute earful -- and why he was very lucky the customer did so, in that it revealed some problems in his delivery process of which he was not aware.

Ditto here.  I was just about to write about a very similar experience on Friday, where a customer of ours ran into a new manager who was just hell bent on collecting an extra $4 he thought we were owed -- four lousy dollars -- and this employee managed to progressively anger, then intimidate, and then outright scare a customer, up to and including trying to reach in and grab stuff out of the customer's car.  The father of a woman in the car contacted us absolutely irate -- as well he should have been.  After about 2 hours of patient listening, we got dad and the other unfortunate customers calmed down.  They will all be getting some nice freebies in the mail, and apparently we will end up with a laudatory rather than hostile customer letter, as the customers ended up being impressed that our regional VP and the out-of-state owner would spend so much time with them trying to figure out what was wrong.  I will say it was easy to be sympathetic, as I was horrified by the story.  I felt personal shame that such actions were taken in my name  (if this sounds silly or exaggerated, think again.  I have talked to a lot of people who have built successful service companies, and every one shares stories of experiencing similar shame for boneheaded actions taken by employees on their behalf.)

Unfortunately, the manager in question had to go -- this was the second time in a very short period where the manager had shown poor judgement in customer service situations.  The manager was a nice person who interviewed great and did a lot of things well, but my experience is that if you don't have good judgement on such customer service interactions, you are not suddenly going to get it next week.  So, like Travis, we were lucky to head off a potential problem before it got worse, and we were lucky to be given a chance to turn around the customers' experience.

The frustrating thing for me is that this manager had just been to my personal customer service training.  At this training I lecture several times over two days fairly passionately about customer service issues, and in fact I cover situations almost identical to the one here.  I even say in the training "I don't want you or your employees going to battle with customers over small amounts of money."

We have found that there are certain people who simply cannot put their ego aside when dealing with a customer.  If these type people get it into their head that the customer is somehow trying to get over on them or the company, even for $4, they will dig in their heals and refuse to let the customer come out on top.  In their mind, the customer is a "bad" person and does not deserve to win, and there is no way they are going to take the ego hit in letting the "bad" customer have a small victory at their expense.  But as I tell employees all the time -- if you refuse to apologize to the customer, you are not counting coup on the customer, all you are doing is delegating the task to Warren (the owner) because he is certainly going to give that customer an apology.  And likely a bunch for free camping as well.  And do you know what some employee's reactions are to my giving that customer an apology and some freebies?  They get mad at me, for not backing them up and letting that "bad" customer get away with whatever they think he is getting away with!

While absolutely predictable that some people will act this way, I have found it nearly impossible to screen for this in the interview process, and totally impossible to train this characteristic out of people.  The best we can do is watch for the first signs of these traits and let folks who evidence them go as soon as possible.  That is also why we try to make it a hard and fast rule that we never hire managers directly from outside the company, we only promote managers from field service employees who have shown good judgment on the front lines.  Once in a blue moon we ignore this rule, as we did when hiring the managers I had to fire on Friday.  Which just goes to show that it is probably a pretty good rule for our business.

Harry Potter Camping Movie

Apparently, the 7th Harry Potter book will be split into two movies.  Great.  The second part will be killer, but the first will doom us to watching Harry run all over England camping. 

Spam Call of the Day

Me:  Hello?
Caller:  I represent your local yellow pages and need to update our information on your account

BIG RED FLAG:  There are many scam artists out there who take your business information and then treat it like a "buy" order for advertising and bill later.  Beware people calling saying they are just trying to "update your listing."   I have also had folks who actually cut and pasted recordings of my phone calls to paste my answers to questions that have not been asked.

Me:  What city are you representing?
C:  we're local
M:  Local where?
C: here
M:  I have 200 locations across the country, what local area are you representing?
C: we're worldwide -- everywhere.
M:  CLICK (me hanging up)

Wow, telemarketing scripts by Kafka.  Unbelievably, they called again 10 seconds later

M: Hello
C:  We represent Phoenix
M:  OK, Phoenix.  I don't have any operations in Phoenix, just my HQ.  I don't want to be listed in Phoenix
C:  You are already listed
M:  Well that explains why I get calls at my accounting office looking for a camping space.  Please remove me.
C:  Can I have your name please
M:  No you may not.  You said I had an account already.  You should know my name  CLICK

Incredibly, my new favorite Indian pitbull telemarketer calls again

M:  Hello
C:  blah, blah, something, blah blah.
M:  Look, please take this down.  I do not want a yellow pages listing in Phoenix.  I would like my Yellow Pages listing removed in Phoenix.  I do not want to pay you any money.  I do not want to give you any information.  I do not want you to call me any more.  CLICK

I do not want it sam I am.  I do not want green eggs and spam. 

I probably still will get a bill.

What if the Wage Isn't Required for Living?

For those who are new to my blog, I run recreation sites like campgrounds, mostly with retired people as labor.  Retired people love these jobs, because they are looking for a nice place to live for the summer in their RV.  Often they are willing to work just for their site and utilities, though as a private entity I must pay them minimum wage as well (when they work for the government, they don't get paid).  We sometimes get into odd situations -- for example, because of a disability payment or Social Security limits, it is not unusual I have employees that ask me if I could not pay them or pay them below minimum wage, and I have to tell them no (minimum wage is absolutely required, even if the worker begs to be paid less).

This relationship works out well.  The retired persons bring conscientious and low-cost management to the campgrounds.  Our employees, who usually are living comfortably off their retirement savings or pension, get a few extra bucks and a nice place to live for the summer.  These folks may work a bit slow, but I can afford that at $6 an hour.

But what happens when a state like Maryland, because it's got its blood up against Wal-Mart, passes a $11.30 "living" wage?  A number of problems result.  First, a camping night generally consumes, on average, about an hour of labor.  At $6 an hour with 22% burden for payroll taxes and workers comp, this totals to $7.32  per night of camping in labor.  At $11.30 an hour, this totals $13.79 per night of camping.  Most of our campsites are tent camping sites and more primitive natural campgrounds (see here) and a typical price for a night of camping is $16.  This is a very low price for camping when compared to large RV parks, and makes our sites particularly popular with lower income people.  The Marlyland minimum wage would add at least $6.50 to this price, or increase prices by 41% in one swoop.  And this is before considering second order cost increases in other purchased goods and utilities due to the minimum wage increase.

The other problem is one I would have thought so obvious that it is amazing to me that no one seems to talk about it -- not everyone earning minimum wage is trying to live on it.  Certainly people new to the work force are one example, as they are often willing to trade lower initial wages for training and experience and a work record and other valuable but non-quantifiable benefits.  In my case, while I am perfectly happy to tolerate lower productivity from older, retired workers at $6 an hour (the average age of my employees is over 70), when wages are forced arbitrarily to over $11, then I have to think about changing my business model, substituting younger workers for older folks.  As any economist would predict, lower productivity workers get pushed out of the market.

For more on this topic, I discussed four case studies in my business dealing with the minimum wage.

Privatizing Public Recreation

A bit over five years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece in our local paper calling for further privatization of public recreation.  The editorial was in response to a proposal for a large bond issue to rebuild recreation infrastructure.  I argued that the state should instead be focusing on attracting private investment.  Not only was there more money for recreation in private hands than public, but I sensed that private funds would more likely be invested in facilities the public really wanted, rather than goofy politically correct projects.  Further, private operators could operate recreation facilities much less expensively, in part because they are not tied to ridiculous public pay scales, pension plans, and job classifications.

Soon after, I had a business broker call me and ask me if I wanted to put my money (such that it was) and time where my mouth was.  After a lot of twists and turns, I ended up the owner of a recreation concession company.  In a recreation concession, a private operator pays the government rent in exchange for the ability to charge visitor fees and run the recreation facility for profit.  In most cases, our company can operate a property and make a profit on fees lower than the government must charge just to break even.

My business, Recreation Resource Management, has prospered since then.  And as I have gotten deeper into public recreation, what I have learned has only confirmed what I wrote in that editorial.  I have seen that when the government runs recreation facilities, it almost never spends enough money on capital maintenance and refurbishment.  The reason seems to be that legislators, given the choice, would much rather spend $X on a shiny new facility they can publicize to their constituents than spend $X maintaining facilities that already exist.  I laugh when I here progressives argue that private industry is too short-term focused and only the government invests for the long-term.  In practice, I find exactly the opposite is true.  Think about hotels, or gas stations, or grocery stores.  Private businesses understand that every 15-20 years, they need to practically rebuild existing infrastructure from scratch to keep them fresh for customers.  This kind of reinvestment almost never happens in public recreation.

Except this week!

After years of building up our business, we just completed a project with California State Parks that is what I have always wanted to achieve with the company.  At McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, California State Parks had an aging concession store and an outdated section of the campground that it really did not have the money to rehabilitate (by the way, this is an absolutely beautiful park -- I highly recommend it).  We crafted a two-part lease with the state which eventually led to us investing over a million dollars in the park:  In phase one, we built a new concession store (old store on left, our new store on right):

Park_storeexterior000  Store3

In phase two, just complete, we took an old tent-camping loop with no utilities and added 24 new cabins.  These cabins not only refurbish an aging and dated section of the campground, but they also add new amenities to the park to attract visitors who may not own an RV and who don't want to sleep in a tent.  In addition, since they are insulated and heated, these cabins will extend the camping season -- in fact, we already have a number of reservations for Thanksgiving, a time when no one would have wanted to tent camp here.

Cabin1    Cabin_inside2

Its a  win-win-win, where  we make money, the state gets lease revenues
from us that exceed their previous camping revenues, and the public
gets new amenities without any taxes or public spending.

So, in answer to the question I so often get, "why does a libertarian run a company that works with the government?"  Now you know why.  I will admit that from time to time I find myself on the losing end of libertarian-intellectual-purity debates because I choose this path rather than, say, living in a cabin in the wilderness and manufacturing rifle barrels for a living.  *Shrug*

Postscript:  One lesson I have also learned is that state governments are not always a monolith.  Texas and Florida, for example, while being beloved of libertarians for having no state income tax, can be horribly bureaucratic in certain areas (e.g. sales tax reporting and vehicle registrations).  California, on the other hand, which in many ways is one of the worst states to do business in, actually has what is probably the most innovative and business-friendly state parks organization in the country.  Go figure.

PS#2:  By the way, the cabins shown are actually modular buildings, built here in Phoenix by Cavco, and shipped to the site.  The classy interior work was done my by maintenance supervisor.

AZ Votes for Recreation Fee Increases

Tonight, it appears that AZ voters will pass Prop 202 to raise recreation use fees in Arizona.  Oh, you say that's not what Prop 202 was for?  It was minimum wage?  That's right.  Prop 202 raises the minimum wage in AZ by 31%. 

I have written about the minimum wage many times.  For a variety of reasons, many seasonal recreation workers in AZ, and in fact in the US, are retired folks who work for minimum wage and a camp site to take care of a facility.  They love the job, and do great work, while filling seasonal jobs that younger folks trying to raise a family can't really take on.  When you take all wage related costs -- wages, payroll taxes, unemployment insurances, workers comp, liability insurance, etc. -- wages drive about 2/3 of recreation costs.  That means that a 31% increase in wages equates to a 20% increase in recreation use fees for camping, boating, day use, etc.

What, you say?  That's not what we meant!  We consumers aren't supposed to pay this extra, you business guys are!  Well, my profit margin is about 5% of revenues, which is a pathetically low number for a service business.  Basically, I do this for fun -- I could probably make a better return investing in government bonds.  So, to avoid bankruptcy, wage increases get passed right through to use fees.  And since the law requires that the minimum wage be increased every year, it means that use fees will have to go up every year (for comparison, we have been able to hold many use fees flat for 3-4 years at a time, despite fuel and other costs).

Sorry.  My employees were happy to work for $5.15 an hour.  They did not ask for a raise.  In fact, I have a waiting list of people who want jobs at $5.15.  It was the voters of Arizona who decided that my employees could no longer legally accept this amount for their labor.  And, unfortunately, it is the voters of Arizona who will have to pay for this raise my employees did not even ask for.

Learning to Eat at the Trough

I am sitting in an industry meeting listening to people tell me all the opportunities, as a tourism-based business, to feed at the public trough and get government funding.  Example topic:  "How to turn your business slowdown into a natural disaster to get disaster-relief funds."  Yuk.  I feel dirty.

Also, my business gets taxed (via sales-tax-like lodging taxes) to support government tourism marketing (in this case, California).  Of course, I don't think any of it returns the money invested in it.  Also, the type of recreation I represent (camping) is totally unrepresented in the ads.  As is typical, these public-private tourism promotion tend to disproportionately benefit the politically connected businesses.

Arizona Minimum Wage Ballot Initiative

Arizona has a ballot initiative here in November to raise the minimum wage to $6.75.  Perhaps more worrisome, the law has been structured to raise the rate every year based on some cost of living increase.  (As an aside - these cost of living escalators in government-mandated wage rates are insanely recursive.  The government raises wages, which increases prices, which leads to a further increase of the statutory rate).  An Arizona group opposed to the initiative has put out a nice Word document with the proposed laws language annotated with facts and refutations.

I will not be coy and pretend that I don't have an interest in this question.  The campgrounds we operate on public lands were run by volunteers in the past, until the courts decided that private companies were not legally allowed to use volunteers.  Most of our camp hosts, who tend to be in their 70's or older (we have many employees in their eighties and a few in their nineties!) get paid minimum wage plus a camp site in a nice park for the summer (the latter is what they really want).  Unlike private campgrounds that are built to be efficient to operate, the public campgrounds we operate tend to be small and labor-intensive.

We make about a 5% profit on sales in the camping business (yes, I know that is pathetically low).  Labor is 60-70% of our costs, if you include costs that are directly tied to wages like payroll taxes and workers comp. premiums.  This law would raise the minimum wage by 31%.  You do the math.  In a stroke, this ballot initiative would raise our costs by 20% (.31 x .65) in a business where costs are 95% of revenues.  Something has to give.  I am not going to work the hours I work and run the business for charity.  A 5% margin is almost there already.  We are therefore planning for two different contingencies.

  1. Camping fees will have to rise by approximately 20%.  This means that a camping fee of $16 will go up by $3.  I will not make any more money, this will all be a pass-through to my employees, most of whom really wanted to volunteer in the first place.  One could rename this ballot initiative the "vote yourself a camping fee increase" initiative.  A few years ago, an attempt to raise lodging taxes on camping by a few percent met with howls of opposition.  But in effect this is ballot initiative in in effect adding a 20% tax to camping fees.

  2. My labor model of hiring retired people may well have to change.  There is a real trade-off in hiring retired folks to maintain campgrounds.  On the plus side, we get a lot of honest and responsible people who have the time and the flexibility in their life to pick up stakes and go live in a campground all summer.  The down side, of course, someone who is 75, or 85, is not going to work as fast or as productively as younger folks.  My workers also tend to get injured more easily (my insurance company freaks every time it sees my employee list with dates of birth) which costs a lot in workes comp. premiums.

    When presented with the choice in the current market of hiring a retired person at $5.15 an hour or a younger, faster worker at $7.50 an hour, I have been happy to hire retired people.  This model has worked great for us.  Unfortunately, I must revisit this business model when my choice is between hiring a faster worker at $7.50 and a slower worker at $6.75 (and rising).  Already in high minimum wage states like CA, OR, and WA we have begun shifting away from hiring as many retired people.  I also hire a lot fewer people, having invested in automated fee collection in high labor cost areas.  (Think about this, at least for a few seconds, before all of you start sending me the inevitable emails I get for being a heartless brute for paying anyone minimum wage).

By the way, the federal government gets around this problem for the campgrounds it operates itself.   How?  Why, it exempts itself from these laws.  Most federal campgrounds employ retired persons as volunteers.  They don't pay campground workers minimum wage, they pay them ZERO.

I wrote a much longer post on minimum wage laws here.  Minimum wage laws are becoming hip in traditionally red-state border areas as a tool to keep immigrants from working.

Update:  I actually underestimated the amount of my costs directly tied to wages, and so I have updated some of the numbers to be more realistic.

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.

More on Gasoline Prices

Lynne Kiesling is on fire, with a series of posts on gasoline pricing over at the Knowledge Problem.  She has posts here and here showing how gasoline purchases have fallen steadily as a percentage of household income, and she also has a nice summary post about the recent runup in prices here.

She is now headed up to the Boundary Waters - hopefully she is camping the Boundary Waters here.