Hundreds of campgrounds, picnic areas and other recreation facilities in national forests and grasslands could close under a sweeping U.S. Forest Service cost-cutting exercise, according to a report in the Denver Post.
Every one of the roughly 15,000 campgrounds, trailheads with bathrooms and other developed recreation sites in the 193 million acres under the agency’s authority is being evaluated. The value of each site is being weighed against the costs of maintaining it, federal officials say.
Forest Service officials say they are being forced to juggle priorities as the system faces a $346 million backlog in maintenance, a growing tab for fire suppression – now 42% of expenditures – and an annual budget that was cut 2.5% to $4.9 billion for 2007.
“We are looking at reality here,” said Jim Bedwell, the Forest Service’s national director of recreation and heritage resources. “We’re trying to best focus our funds as well as look at other ways to operate.”
So far, about 10% of facilities in 44 national forests that have completed their studies are targeted for decommission or closure.
Each of the 155 national forests and 20 grasslands must complete a recreation-site facility master plan by the end of 2007.
The process calls for recreation facilities to be itemized and ranked in order of their condition, frequency of use and how they fit in the forest’s recreation focus, or “niche.”
“There is a whole range of potential outcomes… from closing sites to actually upgrading them,” said Steve Sherwood, director of recreation for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.
The public will have a chance to weigh in once the sites have been selected. Implementation of the plans will take five years, Forest Service officials say.
“Some of the sites being looked at have extremely low occupancy rates, in the 5% to 10% range,” Sherwood said.
“We recognize there will be people who have strong connections,” he said, “but we also know people in Maine and California expect us to take a hard look at those locations because it is their tax dollars going to support these small sites.”
According to the Denver Post, Forest Service officials say perhaps local volunteers, civic organizations and private groups could step in and run some of the facilities on the list.
Decommissioned campgrounds will still be available for camping, but they won’t have toilets, trash cans, picnic tables or water systems, Sherwood said.
One goal of the service’s overall plan is to cut the $346 million maintenance backlog 20% by 2010, 70% by 2015 and 90% by 2020.
Another factor driving the review is the need to upgrade campground water systems to meet tougher federal drinking-water standards, officials say.