Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Forest Service to take stock of facilities

Agency faces "tough decisions" to close some sites, add fees to others

By Patrick Hannigan

Beginning in April 2007, the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests will rank all of its 300-plus developed recreation sites spread out across the four-million acre forest.

"Maybe the bottom 10 percent of sites need to be closed," said Jim Archambeault, recreation planner for the forest.

The process, officially known as Recreation Site Facility Master Planning (RSFMP), was initiated by an administrative rule change within the Forest Service in 2002. The directive required that every one of the roughly 15,000 campgrounds, picnic areas, scenic overlooks and trailheads with bathrooms on the 193 million acres under the agency’s authority be evaluated.

Those sites that fail to meet certain criteria will either be upgraded to fee sites, be turned over to private concessionaires for management or be closed.

"The broad goal is to take a close look at what it costs to operate developed sites in the forest, and try to align the facilities with the budget," said Archambeault. "Those ones that fall out of the bottom, we’ll need to make some real tough decisions."

Archambeault said the RSFMP plan for the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests would be completed by September 2007. He said outcomes of the plan might include closing lesser-used recreation sites, imposing new operating fees, or managing existing recreation sites differently.

Currently, the combined Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests have roughly 300 developed recreation sites that will be included in the RSFMP review. That includes campgrounds, trailheads, overlooks, picnic areas, boat launches and interpretive sites.

The closures and new fees will mainly affect simple, remote facilities, wrote Dick Artley. Before retiring from the Forest Service in 2003, Artley spent the last 12 years of his career as a forest planner at the Nez Perce National Forest in central Idaho.

"This seems totally illogical and absurd," wrote Artley in an open letter published on the Internet Sept. 30. "We all know these "simple", "remote" facilities: 1) have very few improvements and 2) are easy to maintain and are maintained at minimum cost."

Crystal Perrow of Winthrop expressed similar concerns.

"A lot of the sites they are going to close are the unimproved sites that are the favorites of locals," said Perrow. "When we’re out camping, we don’t need hot running water and flush toilets – that’s not what we’re about in the Methow."

Perrow said she believes the RSFMP inventory is being conducted so the Forest Service can close down recreation sites that don’t make money. She said it seems to her as if the process is being conducted "on the sly."

"When does the public get a chop on this? Are our comments even going to make a difference?" asked Perrow. "There’s just not much that’s known."

Archambeault said the public eventually would have an opportunity to comment on the process, but conceded that Forest Service had not developed specific plans for public feedback.

"We haven’t really thought about it yet in terms of how to involve the public, but there will be public involvement," said Archambeault. "It could involve some public meetings or an open house. I can’t say right now how we’re going to do that."

Other national forests have already completed their RSFMP plans and have begun implementation with little or no public notice, said Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based group that opposes new user fees on public lands.

"They’ve offered no opportunity for meaningful public comment," said Benzar. "The end result is going to be the privatization of our national forests for operation as for-profit enterprises."

Since the RSFMP process for the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests has not started, it unclear what specific implications the resulting plan will have for recreation opportunities in the national forest surrounding the Methow. Currently in the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests, 80 of the approximately 160 campgrounds charge fees, and 102 of roughly 140 (or 73 percent) of the major trailheads charge fees.

Isabelle Spohn of Twisp said she is concerned the RFSMP will result in more new fees and the closure of many free recreation sites that Methow locals have been visiting for decades.

"The irony is that a lot of people have stopped going to the national forests because of all the user fees, so now the Forest Service is going to close down these sites because people use them less," said Spohn. "It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Methow Valley News

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