The federal shutdown this week spread to virtually all of the campgrounds in Rim Country at the worst possible time of the year.
Talks between the White House and Congress Thursday revived hopes that the shutdown will end soon. Senate Republicans were expected to meet with the White House today. The issue now involves both the government shutdown and a deal to raise the limit on the debt.
Local officials had hoped campgrounds operated by private concessionaires would escape the effects of the shutdown, which has closed things like the Forest Service operated boat ramps on the local lakes, Tonto National Monument, ranger offices and other facilities in Rim Country.
But to their disappointment, the Forest Service decided to also shut down the privately operated campsites. The concessionaires collect the money, provide a campground host and maintain the sites, while paying a fee to the Forest Service.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said campgrounds play a crucial role in the region’s struggling economy, especially in the fall when festivals and weekend events have dwindled but the weather’s still great for camping and hiking.
“The shutdown of the whole forest is just absolutely a challenge for us,” said Evans. “This is the peak season for camping and for hunting and they’ve had to close the campgrounds — even those under contract. That affects every tourist related business in town. This is the time of year those campgrounds are usually full.”
Interestingly, privately operated marinas at Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon, Bartlett and Saguaro lakes remain open for business as usual, although they also operate under contracts with the Forest Service.
Moreover, the National Park Service this week changed its previous position and said that it would discuss allowing the state governments to operate certain national parks if the shutdown continues. The Grand Canyon draws 18,000 visitors a day who pump $467 million into the region’s economy annually. Businesses in the town of Tusyan estimate the shutdown is costing them $200,000 a day in lost business.
In Rim Country, the forests themselves remain open, including all trails and roads. Most of the forests also remains open to disbursed camping and hunting.
Many Republican lawmakers who support the shutdown generally insist the government should keep open popular departments and services like the National Parks, despite the lack of budget authorization. The law exempts only “essential” federal workers deemed vital to public health and safety.
Ironically, Republicans and Democrats did quickly agree that federal employees idled by the political impasse will get paid for the time they’re not working once Congress passes another continuing budget resolution. As a result, the shutdown won’t even save any money — but will likely cost the economy billions in lost activity.
Local officials have protested the decision to close the campsites, noting that the campgrounds in Rim Country almost all operate on private money with non-federal employees. The private operators set and collect the fees. As a result, the Tonto Pass that works on fee-charging facilities elsewhere on the Tonto Forest doesn’t work at most of the Rim Country campgrounds and several day use areas.
Ironically enough, forest users who have all this time suffered the penalty of paying one fee for Rim Country campgrounds and another fee for an annual pass to use elsewhere won’t now get the benefit of having privately run campgrounds.
Private concession operators run hundreds of recreation areas within the National Forests, including the majority of the largest and most popular sites. These privately-run concessions typically are funded solely via the user fees paid at the gate, which go to paying for the employees, utilities, trash collection, maintenance, and even insurance at the sites. These privately-operated recreation areas do not require any Federal funding, and in fact they pay the government millions in fees.
“We were certainly taken by surprise by this closure order,” said Warren Meyer, CEO of Recreation Resource Management. “In all past government shutdowns, such as those in the mid-1990s, concession recreation operations have always remained open. This only makes sense, since our operations don’t use any government funds or employees. While we do partner with the U.S. Forest Service for certain activities, none of these are critical to daily operations. We are convinced this closure is an unjustified and unnecessarily punitive action that hurts the recreating public, while doing nothing to reduce government spending.”
Forest Service rangers with law-enforcement responsibilities continue to patrol and respond to calls as “essential” personnel.
Examples of concession-operated sites in Arizona include the Houston Mesa, Ponderosa, Christopher Creek and Sharp Creek campgrounds near Payson; Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing, West Fork/Call of the Canyon, Cave Springs, and Manzanita near Sedona; Lake Mary, Lockett Meadow, Pinegrove and Bonito near Flagstaff; Demotte and Jacob Lake just north of the Grand Canyon; and Rose Canyon Lake and Spencer Canyon on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson.
At this time, the closure orders appear to be aimed only at smaller, private operators. At least three Arizona State Parks that operate on USFS lands under very similar agreements apparently have not been asked to close. The closure order also appears to exempt large corporations that operate ski resorts on USFS lands.
The Federal government has shut down its recreation information portal at Recreation.gov, but Arizona residents can check the re-opening dates for many of the most popular recreation sites in Arizona at Recreation Resource Management’s Web site, www.camp rrm.com. The Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Management, Inc. operates facilities on federal lands all across the country, plus facilities owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Arizona and California State Parks, and a number of municipalities and utility districts. Other facilities shut down in the Tonto National Forest include:
• Forest Supervisors office
• Ranger district offices
• Forest Service recreational sites