The privatization of public campground management

All the info you need to decide whether you love or hate that the Forest Service uses concessionaires.

  • View of Hungry Horse Reservior from Emery Bay Campground on the Flathead National Forest.

    Forest Service Northern Region

If you camp at a U.S. Forest Service campground this summer, you’ll probably hand your fee directly to a host employed by a private company, rather than stuffing it into a little brown box on the honor system or giving it to a retiree volunteering for the Forest Service. That's because the majority of the agency's campgrounds are now managed by for-profit companies called "concessionaires."

Both the Forest Service and the companies regard the concessionaire program as a great success in public-private partnership (the term they prefer to "privatization"), and consider it an essential tool for keeping campgrounds open in a time of government belt-tightening and reduced staffing. Concessionaires relieve the agency of day-to-day maintenance duties and the costs they entail, allowing it to put its precious recreation dollars toward other things, says Paul Cruz, the Rocky Mountain Region’s recreation program business manager. (The agency's recreation budget has remained relatively flat for at least a decade, and it's often dipped into to pay for firefighting.) Concessionaires use fees to cover the costs of staffing campgrounds and general upkeep  –  trash removal, cleaning toilets, maintaining water systems  –  with some left over for profit. Proponents say the system shifts costs from the general taxpayer directly to campground users. Where the Forest Service maintains its own campgrounds, the agency typically covers the cost with user fees and taxpayer money.

Opponents of the concessionaire program, however, believe tax dollars should be spent to keep fees low on public land. Public land shouldn't be managed for private profit, they say. "The revenue and the profits are private, but all of the risks are socialized," says Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which advocates against access fees on public land. "You and I are bearing the risk. If the campground has to be rebuilt after a fire, we pay for it, and then it’s handed back to the concessionaires. It's a no-risk business (for the concessionaires)."

For a more in-depth explanation of how the program works, read Concessionaire Campgrounds: An Explainer. We analyzed fees at campgrounds in Colorado, which makes for an interesting case study because, though most of the state’s campgrounds  –  268 of the 336 in our analysis  –  are under private management, one of its national forests has no concessionaires, and publicly managed campgrounds are sprinkled throughout the rest. We excluded group campgrounds from our analysis, and for consistency, looked only at basic tent sites without electrical hookups.

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to NewTowncarShare News and is based in Santa Fe. She tweets @callycarswell.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • available in Gothic, CO for 2019 summer season - Manager, Lead Cooks, Prep-Cooks, Dishwasher - at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The Dining Hall...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.
  • More information: Search 96076
  • Friends of the Verde River is looking for someone to join our team who has a keen investigative mind and is an excellent communicator and...
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in Durango, CO. 1800 sf of busy retail space in a 3100 sf historic building. Long term lease or option to...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit
  • The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is seeking a technical partner to develop a land management plan for the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern...
  • Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • on 3 acres near Moxon. 3 bd/1.5 bath, apt. Views/access to hiking, fishing, wildlife.1-207-593-6312. $165,900.
  • Senior position responsible for the development of all marketing and fundraising strategies to grow the base of philanthropic support and awareness of GSEP.
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research.
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] (Country Homes).
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....