December 31, 2007

Changing needs forcing closure of National Forest recreation sites

Photo by William Wilson Lewis III / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

When Forest Service recreation officer Jonathan Cook-Fisher looks out over the campground tucked deep into the San Bernardino Mountains, his gaze sweeps over the ponderosa pines and chirping squirrels and lands on a lopsided picnic table.

The table's chipped paint and splintered bench -- probably hacked off for kindling -- jump out at him like flames in a forest.

The dilapidated table is one of many signs of neglect at Tent Peg Group Campground, Cook-Fisher said. Broken wooden parking lot barriers, inaccessible fire rings and sediment runoff threatening endangered species downstream also plague the camp five miles down a rutted dirt road from Green Valley Lake.

Tent Peg's lagging maintenance, difficult access and a lack of visitors will likely spell the end of this '60s-era campground, one of four San Bernardino National Forest campgrounds and picnic sites targeted for closure over the next five years.

Under the gun to save money, ranger districts across the country have performed sweeping recreation assessments to reshape facilities to fit shifting interests among visitors and get rid of what doesn't work anymore.

In the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests, officials want to boost overnight fees to pay for improvements and maintenance at recreation areas that remain open. They also propose seasonal closures in some spots; a greater reliance on volunteers; and renovation of some camp areas to cater to prime users, such as off-highway vehicle enthusiasts.

Other sites targeted for closure are Crest Park Picnic Area off Highway 18 near Rimforest, Big Pine Equestrian Group Campground northwest of Big Bear Lake and Fuller Mill Creek Picnic Area off Highway 243 near Idyllwild. The Cleveland National Forest, which has fewer visitors, does not plan any closures.

"We're under direction ... to cut costs because the budget is getting lean," said Kermit Johansson, project coordinator for the San Bernardino National Forest. "We're going back and reviewing every site, looking at whether it's worth keeping open; do people use it, is it something the public wants now?"

The driving force behind the five-year Recreation Facility Analysis is $346 million in postponed upkeep nationwide, ranging from crumbling parking lots to aging, malodorous vault toilets. Officials hope the changes will eliminate most of the backlog by 2020.

This is the first comprehensive review of the 155 national forests and grasslands across the country, said Jim Bedwell, director of recreation, heritage and volunteer resources for the Forest Service.

Many of the recreation areas date to the 1930s and don't reflect today's most popular activities, which have changed from tent camping and long stays to mountain bikes and day use, he said.

"It's eliminating those things that are very costly, that are impacting the environment or are not well-utilized so we can use those funds to meet the new demands," Bedwell said.

No 'Wiggle Room'

If Cook-Fisher had his way, all of Tent Peg's tables and other amenities would be replaced. But the reality is that funding is stagnant and the area's costly firefighting seasons have taken a bite out of recreation dollars.

People would be surprised at the cost of upkeep and improvements, he said.

A new picnic bench is about $800; 8-by-8-inch boundary posts that line the roadways and parking areas cost $50 each; pumping sewage from the toilets is at least $600 a year at Tent Peg. And a recreation technician who cleans and restocks the bathroom, empties trash, cleans the fire rings and restores any incidental damage to the landscape by campers costs about $750 per week.

Shady Cove Group Campground, off Highway 18 east of Running Springs, is an example of a well-maintained site that is worth saving, Cook-Fisher said. The tables, barbecues and bathrooms are new, the campground is accessible off a paved road, and it has at least three times more users than Tent Peg, despite an operating season four months shorter.

"We can be putting more manpower and funds into Site A if there's no longer Site B. We are really at that point," said Cook-Fisher, assistant recreation director for the Mountaintop Ranger District in Skyforest. "We don't have a lot of wiggle room."

Local forests were asked to craft their plans as if their recreation funding would remain the same over the next five years.

Angry Response

The proposal angers mountain resident Tim Cochran, who said the Forest Service should better promote campgrounds and other recreation sites to the many newcomers to the region who might not know they exist.

He contends the Forest Service doesn't give local ranger districts enough money to keep and maintain what they have, even with revenue from fees charged to visitors. Cochran was dismayed at first when the government expanded user fees for federal lands two years ago but has come to accept it as a way of getting things done.

Local forests keep 60 percent to 80 percent of the money generated by campground fees, special use permits, the Adventure Pass, which costs $5 per day or $30 per year, and the $80 annual pass that covers all federal recreation lands.

The money has helped keep up the standards at many sites, Cook-Fisher said. Without Adventure Pass revenue, the Forest Service wouldn't have many tables painted, restrooms cleaned as often and critter-proof trashcans installed, he said.

But Cochran doesn't think enough of it stays in the forest.

"It's morally wrong that people who just want to have a picnic with their family and stick their feet in a stream, either the facilities are not up to snuff or they're having to pay money for what their taxes are already going for," he said.

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a national organization that opposes recreation fees on public lands, has called for a General Accountability Office audit of Forest Service recreation budgets. The group also wants congressional oversight hearings on recreation fees, and public review and comment of the Recreation Facility Analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. The coalition is sponsoring legislation, Senate Bill 2438, to limit recreation fees.

Priorities Questioned

The no-fee group's president, Kitty Benzar, questions whether electrical hookups and other costly improvements are wise when the Forest Service can't afford to maintain the simple, rustic facilities that have served visitors for so many years.

"The mission of the Forest Service should be to make outdoor recreation available and affordable for everyone. That doesn't require a lot of amenities, just simple things like picnic tables and toilets, exactly the type of amenities that are being removed" under the Recreation Facilities Analysis, she said.

Benzar decried managing public lands on a business model, saying it gives the illusion that the land belongs to the agency rather than the public.

"They're supposed to work for us," she said.

But Bedwell, the agency's director of recreation, said the Forest Service has long had to be resourceful in providing recreation opportunities, contracting with outfitter guides, private ski area operators and campground concessionaires. Fees are no different, he said.

"We have to be able to utilize all those means in order to provide what people are looking for," Bedwell said.

Looking for Volunteers

With declining budgets, the Forest Service is looking to volunteers to perform work it once paid for.
In the San Bernardino forest, 1,684 volunteers contributed 155,974 hours, worth $2.7 million, in 2007 -- almost double the number of hours donated five years ago. Volunteers with at least 100 hours get a free annual Adventure Pass for the four Southern California forests, and 500 hours earns a nationwide pass. The time also counts toward work experience for Forest Service job applicants, and the agency is working on more innovative ways to draw volunteers, said Valeria Baca, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino National Forest.

In the Cleveland National Forest, the Trabuco Ranger District had 437 volunteers and Eagle Scouts working 7,000 hours last year. The district also works with the Los Pinos Conservation Camp, an Orange County facility for troubled youths, which contributed 17,000 hours cleaning up campgrounds. A hang-gliding club near Lake Elsinore exchanges use of a mountaintop for cleanup of the site, including the toilet.

The forest would suffer without volunteers, said Debra Clarke, wilderness and trails manager and volunteer coordinator for the Trabuco district.

"I'm responsible for 40,000 acres of wilderness and 140 miles of trails and I have no staff. So without volunteers, I can't do my job," said Clarke, who recently recruited a fellow customer at a wireless phone store.

Groups Help Save Sites

Three sites in the Santa Rosa San Jacinto Mountains National Monument -- Santa Rosa Springs and Pinyon Flat campgrounds and Ribbonwood Equestrian Group Campground -- were deleted from the closure list after members of special-interest groups volunteered to help with maintenance and improvements.

Work will include taking water-quality samples to save a ranger from commuting to the remote site in the mountains south of Palm Springs, said Buford Crites, a member of the national monument steering committee. Another group, Friends of the Desert Mountains, plans to raise at least $27,000 for a new restroom and parking lot improvements at Santa Rosa Springs, where total improvements are estimated at $70,000.

The 275,000-acre monument is one of the few spots in Southern California where total isolation can be found, Crites said. He called the Forest Service formula used to determine closures flawed because it favors heavily used, urban sites.

"It gave very heavy weight to numbers of users, which meant that anything that was a backcountry experience or a dirt road experience automatically ranked low, and any campground or facility that was next to a major highway did well," Crites said.

Closure decisions, made at the local level, are based on a computer formula that considers, among other things, use, maintenance costs, condition of the facilities, environmental importance, value to the local community and how a site fits with a forest's niche, such as winter sports and snow play in the San Bernardino and horseback riding in the Cleveland, Forest Service officials said.

Public Input

Nationwide, the Recreation Facility Analysis could bring closure of hundreds of sites in the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service. Plans for the San Bernardino and Cleveland forests are complete, but districts have until the end of 2008 to finish their analyses.

The deadline was extended to allow for hearings after accusations elsewhere that the Forest Service failed to gather comments from the public. Forest service officials denied secrecy and said they had to inventory their sites and make a list before taking it to the public.

The plan has been years in the making, said Johansson, the San Bernardino project coordinator.

But "nothing closes until we talk to a lot more users and groups," said Baca, the forest's spokeswoman. "We will consider options ... on how it can be used differently and suit needs without being such an expenditure."

To solicit public comment, San Bernardino forest officials held four open houses in September. Only a handful of people turned up, Johansson said. It was the same story in the Cleveland National Forest.

Many mountain residents don't know about the plan, including Thomas Garcia, 19, of Crestline, who visits Crest Park Picnic Area a couple of times a week to meet a friend from Lake Arrowhead.

"They're thinking of closing it?" asked Garcia, sitting on a rock and bundled up against a crisp fall breeze. "I don't know why they should, it's a nice little spot."

Crest Park, with its cedars, oaks and pines and sweeping views of San Bernardino Valley, duplicates two nearby picnic areas -- Baylis and Switzer, Johansson said.

Crest Park is scheduled for closure next year. An environmental impact report would be done and public comment sought before any of the improvements are removed, Johansson said.

Changing Times

Many local recreation sites were built in the heyday of canvas tents and station wagons. Camping today is about mammoth RVs with satellite TV, and forest visitors are as likely to kayak and rappel as they are to fish.

"What we're trying to do is to gear our forests toward our users, and our users are urban people. They come for a day, they don't plan it out ... They come when the weather is nice, when we have snow, when their calendar allows it to happen. Most people are within two hours driving," said Anne Carey, recreation planner for Cleveland.

Many of today's users are looking for more amenities, such as electrical and water hookups, and easy highway access.

Technology, access and a young generation that pursues active outdoor sports has influenced what people want from their forests, said Gary Green, an assistant professor at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and a Forest Service researcher.

The advent of global positioning systems can put users almost anywhere they want to be, he said. And developments such as lightweight kayaks that can be carried by one person make access to activities easier.

Forest Service planners kept that in mind, and they'll spend what money they do have improving facilities that appeal to 21st-century visitors.

The plan includes catering some campgrounds to off-highway vehicle users, who account for about 12 million visitors nationwide each year. The agency has said it will designate specific areas for such vehicles to minimize erosion and habitat degradation from unplanned roads.

Crab Flats Campground, near Tent Peg, will be converted to an off-highway vehicle campground because that is mainly what it's used for now. Spurs will have to be lengthened to accommodate longer trailers, and barriers will have to be replaced.

In the Cleveland, money is being spent on improvements that will last longer, such as metal picnic tables and sweeter-smelling, easier-to-clean vault toilets.

"We need to change it or get rid of it, but not continue to just stumble ahead," Johansson said. "It's well overdue."