Proposed Forest Service Rule Would Trim Discounts

By Beacon Staff

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a plan that would reduce discounts given to senior citizens and disabled people who want to camp in national forests.

Agency proponents say the change from a 50 percent discount to a 10 percent discount would help private concessionaires remain profitable and would bring the federal fee policy in line with private market camping rates. But critics say it would be a breach of faith and would further erode affordable access to public land.

The discounts date back three decades to a time when the Forest Service started a fee-based system that relied on private concessionaires to maintain campgrounds. Federal law created the Golden Age and Golden Access passes, which granted holders a lifetime of free entry to national parks and a 50 percent discount on federal camping fees.

The Recreation Enhancement Act went into effect in 2005 and maintained the lifetime passes but no longer required the 50 percent camping discount.

“On the one hand, we need to continue to have enough concessionaires to operate the campgrounds,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman at the Forest Service offices in Missoula.

“On the other hand, we want to keep camping affordable on these public lands,” she said.

But Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said the Forest Service “is not showing good faith by changing the terms of the passes after the fact.”

The Forest Service is the only land management agency that still requires concessionaires to offer the half-off rate. Other agencies, such as the National Park Service, allow them to decide whether to extend the discounts.

The rule change notes a 2008 survey showing that nearly 80 percent of federal land passes sold are senior and access passes, which include the reduced camping rates. The Forest Service says concession revenue totaled $35 million in 2007, and the discount cost an estimated $4.2 million in revenue. By cutting the discount from 50 percent to 10 percent, revenue is projected to increase by about $3.36 million.

The change would affect only Forest Service sites operated by concessionaires, but those campgrounds represent 82 percent of “reservable” camping in national forests.