Chief Tom Tidwell says agency wants to maintain ‘affordable access’ on public lands
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service has backed away from a plan to cut senior discounts at campgrounds operated by private companies.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced the decision March 17, saying in a prepared statement that the agency wants to “maintain affordable access to our National Forests and Grasslands, giving people easy ways to recreate and find respite in the great outdoors.”
The Forest Service had proposed changes to discounts provided to holders of Golden Age and Golden Access Passports and Senior and Access Passes. Under the proposal, discounts at concession-operated campgrounds would have changed from the current 50 percent to 10 percent. After receiving more than 4,000 public comments, Tidwell said the proposed changes are not the best way to address growing challenges regarding services provided by private businesses at Forest Service recreation facilities. See the original proposal here.
Private companies now run 82 percent of the reservable camping spots in about 4,700 campgrounds nationwide, including major campgrounds in Summit County like Heaton Bay. Critics of the plan to cut the discounts said the proposal was driven by those private for-profit companies looking to maximize profits.
When the Forest Service presented the proposal, rangers said it was a question of financial viability for the concession-holders, including big recreation companies like Thousand Trails, which operates Forest Service campgrounds around the country, including Summit County. The agency also said it was a question of equity, claiming that, because of the senior discounts, families and younger users pay a disproportionate share of camping fees.
Seniors rallied against the plan in online RV forums, and grassroots groups like the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which has been fighting against incrementally creeping fee increases on public lands took aim at behind-the-scenes groups like the National Forest Recreation Association, a trade group that represents private companies doing business on public lands. According to the no-fee group, the proposal to cut discounts was part of a greater plan to privatize public lands.