On October 17 the Forest Service issued a Special Use Permit (SUP) to Parks Management Company, a for-profit business that manages recreational facilities throughout California, for management of 52 campgrounds, trailheads, and day use areas in the Los Padres National Forest. This new permit took effect on November 1, with fees increasing—some going up 300%—at 46 of the 52 sites listed. Additionally, the Adventure Pass that was previously accepted throughout the Los Padres will no longer be valid at any of the 52 sites managed by Parks Management Company. Six separate concessionaire permits that expired in October of this year were consolidated under the new SUP. Unfortunately, these sweeping changes to recreation management in the forest were made with very limited public notice and involvement.
Lack of Notice
ForestWatch, along with most of the other conservation groups and stakeholders interested in the management of the Los Padres, learned about the new concessionaire proposal on October 5 when the Forest Service issued a press release announcing its intention to issue the SUP to Parks Management Company. Normally this type of proposal would appear in the Forest Service’s quarterly Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA), which ForestWatch and other organizations use to remain informed about plans that will affect the forest; however, the new SUP proposal was not listed in a single SOPA this year. Furthermore, the Forest Service sent out a letter regarding the new SUP on September 2, but only to a select few individuals and groups (11 addresses to be exact). Ultimately, most people did not find out about this development until after the Forest Service issued a press release or even until after we informed our followers via social media and this website a few days after reading the press release.
The lack of transparency and public notice from the Forest Service meant concerned citizens and organizations had four business days to submit a comment to the agency before they officially made the decision on October 17. These public comments were not even submitted during the original public comment period that ended on September 30 because few were aware of the proposal in the first place. The Forest Service received nearly 140 emails from the public, almost all of which were submitted after ForestWatch first reported on the plan. ForestWatch was able to obtain copies of the comments through a FOIA request. Nearly every comment from the public expressed either complete opposition to the plan or requested that the Forest Service reopen the official public comment period and delay a decision on the SUP until after forest stakeholders had a chance to be involved. Just look at some of the things people had to say:
“Increasing fees will make it harder for low-income citizens to afford to come out and may decrease the opportunities for youth to experience all of the great things the LPNF has to offer. As an educator in a low income area, I know how fortunate we are to have places like this near us in Ventura County. I urge you to keep the communities in mind and ensure that access is not outside of the realm of what families can afford, especially in our lower income areas.”
“The minimal public communication or involvement is not the model we have come to expect in the management of our public trust resources.”
“I spend hundreds of dollars a year to camp in the Monterey Ranger District. This [fee] increase will make it harder for me and my family to enjoy local camping. My children and my parents will have a diminished lifestyle of this rate increase.”
“As a 30 year resident of SLO County and an avid hiker, this plan is disturbing. Our public lands should not be managed for profit by a private company.”
“In my experience, facilities run directly by the Forest Service are managed much better than the privatized facilities.”
“In the words of a 1940 Forest Service pamphlet that applies to this day: ‘These are the people’s forests. They need and have the right to use them for their pleasure. Most of them fall within the lower income brackets. The public forests offer the only chance for many of them to get some change and rest. And it is conceivable that the restoration of health and spirit which forest outings visibly produce will be worth as much to the Nation in the end as all the material national forest crops (USDA FS 1940: 36).’”
Letter to the Forest Service
In addition to these public comments, the Forest Service also received a letter signed by ForestWatch and nine other conservation groups in the area expressing concern regarding the lack of public notice, the incorrect categorical exclusion the Forest Service used to avoid an environmental assessment for the permit, the fee increases at most sites, and other permit terms. You can read our coalition’s letter to the Forest Service here. Despite this letter and all of the public comments received, the Forest Service approved the plan without any changes on October 1.
The fee increases at most developed campgrounds in the forest and at several day use areas and trailheads is particularly concerning as it is still not entirely clear how the money generated will be used by Parks Management Company. The SUP does state that 10% of the expected revenue from fees at these sites, which is expected to be approximately $2.8 million for the concessionaire, must go back to the Forest Service. However, Parks Management Company can offset this expected $280,000 payment to the Forest Service by performing activities that go above and beyond the permit’s stipulations. It is still unclear how this process will work and what type of accountability will be expected of the concessionaire for reporting such activities. Additionally, higher fees will drive campers to seek out remote, informal campsites that could create unsanitary conditions, pollute mountain streams, and harm sensitive wildlife habitat.
Privatization of Our Forest
Perhaps the more fundamental issue with this plan is that management of recreation sites is one of the primary responsibilities of the Forest Service, and it is inappropriate to transfer that authority to a private, for-profit corporation that is not subject to the same rules of transparency and public accountability as public agencies. However, ForestWatch recognizes that this decision was made, in part, due to a significant lack of funding from Congress for the Forest Service. According to the agency, budgets have fallen 50% in the last 10 years. Such cuts make it difficult for the Forest Service to keep up with maintenance demands, and so we continue to urge Congress to provide adequate funding for the Forest Service. And even though the election has passed, we still encourage everyone to vote for candidates who support our public lands in future elections. We also maintain a position that significant management change decisions, especially those that will affect the recreationists who use the forest, need to be transparent and involve the public. ForestWatch plans to monitor Parks and Management Company for the duration of their new permit, ensuring that they are not only held accountable, but that our forest is properly cared for even as it is being sold off.
Here is a complete list of fee increases that took place starting November 1:
|Trailheads||Old Fee ($ per day)||New Fee ($ per day)|
|Day Use Areas||Old Fee ($ per day)||New Fee ($ per day)|
|Turkey Flat||0||20 (per night)|
|Campgrounds||Old Fee ($ per night)||New Fee ($ per night)|
|Arroyo Seco - Family||25||30|
|Arroyo Seco - Group||75||125|
|Campo Alto - Group||5||100|
|Holiday - Group||75-100||100-125|
|McGill - Group||85||100|
|Plaskett Creek - Family||25||35|
|Plaskett Creek - Group||100||150|
|Sage Hill - Group||91||125|
* Or $50 annual pass
** and $10 daily parking at trailhead