What is the U.S. Forest Service doing to meet the increasing demand for more camping opportunities?
By Scott Linden
Your tax dollars (not) at work? I doubt there’s a better example of bureaucratic disconnect than the tone-deaf U.S. Forest Service’s cutting the number of campgrounds while demand soars. It’s contributing to “campground crowding” on a national scale, perpetrated by folks who, ostensibly, work for us.
My investigation was slow-walked by bureaucrats several times, but I ultimately overcame the stonewalling and got some answers. (Washington D.C. has learned the slower they respond to reporters’ questions, the fewer stories like this will see the light of day.) It started months ago, with a simple question: What is the U.S. Forest Service doing to meet the increasing demand of taxpayers for more camping opportunities?
After some chain-yanking, diplomatic acrobatics, and a boatload of playing nice while biting my tongue, I got a straight answer and you’re not going to like it: Since 2012, the annual growth rate in campground use has risen 10 percent while the number of campgrounds shrank 5 percent. That’s before the COVID-fueled onslaught of fresh-air seekers in motorcoaches, trailers and tents seeking “social distance.”
In what economics textbook does this make sense? My first reaction was, “Where’s the beef?” But I got nothin’ but grease and free napkins.
I was first assured things were well in hand. Al Remley, Forest Service Acting Assistant Director, Recreation, said: “We are working on plans to add more campsites to existing campgrounds and to further enhance and develop existing campsites and campgrounds to better accommodate expected future use and demand.”
This land is your land … or is it?
Let’s be clear: This is land owned by the citizens of the U.S. The Forest Service should be managing it as their first chief Gifford Pinchot instructed, for “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” That includes the millions of tax-paying RV travelers looking for a parking place next weekend, doesn’t it?
You decide if they are
Some numbers: The U.S. Forest Service owns and manages (or mismanages) more than 4,700 campgrounds. That’s a net loss since 2010 of 264 facilities that could be your next destination, now gone. That’s 89,494 campsites … before the COVID-related explosion in demand. You know what’s happened since? Closed signs, denied reservations, mob scenes and traffic jams at check-out time, on land we all own but can’t use. With a budget of $5.14 billion, they can’t find a few million to scrape off (and try to level) some more dirt?
Policymakers … without a policy
Worse yet, Remley said the feds don’t have a national policy for campground expansion, leaving it to local bureaucrats. Don’t be holding your breath for one, either. These are the same government employees whose budgets are already squeezed by fire fighting (how’s that workin’ for ya?), managing squatter populations and silly initiatives from restricting wilderness trail access to selling parking passes.
There is little incentive for seeking additional campground funding, as it piles on more workload—something unionized government employees are loath to accept. And don’t hold your breath for Congress’ help. A high-ranking Forest Service official who asked to remain anonymous said, “Forests do not receive enough appropriations to operate and maintain their existing sites.” Read: No new spots for your pull-behind, motorhome or truck camper.
Independent research—and your own experience—foretells an onslaught of RV and tent camping demand this summer and long into the future. So, if you want a place to park, and you want your money’s worth from the federal land you own, call your local forest supervisor and ask why they’re not opening more campgrounds.