I never liked the fact that Forest Service staff – chained to their desks – hire private concessionaires to manage some of the daytime recreation areas in our national forests. Since the federal government shut down in October, I like him even less, thanks to a man who revealed what he really thinks about the deal: he claimed his special use agency license had transformed our public lands in its “private parks”.
The man is Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management, which holds licenses to operate campgrounds and day-use sites in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. With the 1995 federal shutdown, his business was allowed to continue operating on federal lands. This time, however, things were different and Meyer was not happy.
Although Meyer’s concessions in the Red Rock Ranger district of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon remained open for eight days after the 17-day shutdown, he protested to the media that he was conducting “privately funded operations. And therefore should not have closed at all. Meyer, a board member, past president and current treasurer of the National Forest Recreation Association, apparently expressed the opinion of all concessionaires on federal lands.
The financial impact of the park’s closure was felt immediately around Grand Canyon National Park, causing hotel reservations to be canceled and tourist traffic to drop sharply. In response, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer struck a deal with the federal government, allowing Arizona to pay to reopen the park. This gave Meyer an opening to state on his blog that he had a lot in common with the Governor.
It was “arbitrary and capricious,” he said, for the federal government to allow Arizona and Utah to fund national parks and keep them open, but not allow it to operate as well: “So why can’t private parks on federal lands be reopened with the use of private funds, that’s how we operate anyway? ”
I have news for Meyer: if he wants to operate a private park, he has to buy land on which to operate his business. The last time I checked, US Forest Service land was still owned by the federal government and therefore owned by every citizen of this country. As long as he chooses to run his business on our land, he will be subject to the same political tides and bureaucratic nightmares as the rest of us – ridiculous as some of them are.
Meyer argued on his blog that shutting down privately run sites in national forests was “an unnecessary and vindictive ordeal imposed on recreationists, since our sites do not take a dime of government money.” This is hardly the case, since the companies that exploit concessions on public lands keep money that would otherwise go to the Forest Service.
Meyer also claims that dealers like him “actually pay rents to the government.” The fees paid by dealers for these special use permits, however, are largely mythical, as in practice any savvy businessman knows of legal ways to avoid paying them. Almost always 100 percent of all costs are offset by depreciation for maintenance and repairs.
In addition, when special user permits are issued to concessionaires, all bets are off when it comes to complying with the laws that apply to sites managed by the Forest Service. For starters, dealers are not required to accept interagency passes. This is to ensure that they retain their status as “business opportunities” rather than being taken to “provide more public service”, according to a note from the Forest Service published in March 2007. If they do were legally considered to provide a public service, they would be required to hire educated federal employees and pay them according to the federal salary scale rather than minimum wage.
On October 15, Meyer’s company, the business group he heads and two other private concessionaires filed a complaint against the Forest Service to protest the closures. In their complaint, Meyer and his acolytes demand the reopening of their concessions. Two days later, the agency responded with a motion to dismiss as the federal government’s reopening rendered the complaint “moot.” No court has therefore intervened in this debate on the privatization of some of our public lands.
Still, it’s probably not the best idea to sue your primary business partner, especially when that partner owns the land on which you operate your business.
Cindy Cole of Sedona, Arizona, contributes to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).