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8162X: Seeing the forest through the fees
A requiem for simple campsites

In what has become a predictable spring ritual both nationally and locally, the return of warm weather brings an inbound migration of official press releases about increased national forest user fees and campground closures. We are broke, claims the Forest Service, campground maintenance is expensive, it complains. In the national environment of budget-cutting and ideological hostility to the commonwealth of our public lands, it is easy to believe that Forest Service is telling the truth. But on my moose poop detector, I give this spin a C-minus.

Yes, the Forest Service is a victim of stagnant top-line budgets and political meddling, there is no doubt. And as most residents of the West should be well-aware, firefighting and fire mitigation costs now consume well more than half the total USFS budget. Over the last decade, the fire budget blew up like a firenado and sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the USFS’s activities; meaning, there’s supposedly no money left for all the other stuff the service did before firefighting dropped a load of retardant on the recreation budget.

The fire budget needs to be carved out from the forest management budget and stand on its own; they don’t belong combined any more than the local fire department should be combined with the town swimming pool. Yet that leaves us wondering what happens to the other half of the Forest Service budget.

Would you be surprised if I told you that, of all the Forest Service spending, about $5 billion dollars in total, less than 10 percent goes to trails and campgrounds? In fact, perhaps as little as 5 percent is spent on the recreation budget (the stuff people do when they visit the woods). So, when the Forest Service tells us it is too broke to fund recreation, a reasonable person might ask what’s under all those other rocks with the money sticking out. The answer is not pit toilets. The answer might be closer to what goes into pit toilets.

Now, we needn’t be too hard on our local Forest Service staffs. I am sure they do their best to work with the directives and limitations set in Washington. But when I’m told that it is too expensive to operate rustic, lightly developed campgrounds and pit toilets, it makes me want to rear up on my hind legs and roar.

The USFS says it can’t afford to build or even maintain simple low-intensity campgrounds.  It’s a pit toilet, people. That’s a concrete vault with a plastic closet stuck on top. Somehow, the Forest Service can afford to deal with logging and drilling; and it can oversee an air force and infantry system that undertakes larger military operations than many European nations; and its researchers can develop new commercial uses for forest products that you didn’t even know existed; yet it can’t build a dirt privy so campers don’t have to poop in the woods. That is not a budget problem, it is a priority problem.

Closer to home, we see the Forest Service closing rustic campgrounds, and focusing its capital budget on privately-run improved sites. Indeed, the USFS is systematically closing the rustic/remote camping options — the type with informal access, limited development and pit-toilet-only amenities. Instead favoring more highly-developed camping with the sort of amenities and infrastructure that can justify charging higher nightly fees, requiring advance online reservations and that generate enough revenue to support a concessionaire’s profits. The campground at Avalanche Creek has been neglected for years, and seems teetering under the imminent threat of closure.

There are surprisingly few campsites sites available within an hour’s drive of the Mid-Valley. And the sites we do have require reservations — six months in advance. Of the approximately 350 campsites in the Roaring Fork Valley, about two-thirds require reservations. Most of the non-reservation sites are up Independence Pass or at Ruedi Reservoir. 

There is a high degree of irony that we are surrounded here in the Roaring Fork Valley with ample national forest, but in fact have very little available camping. Full campgrounds are the norm during much of the season. This strikes me as unfortunate and unacceptable, inasmuch as we live in the supposedly Central Rockies mecca of being outside. And if you peel the onion, most of the camping we do have is advance-reservation, developed camping. The reality is, most of the campgrounds are full at least every weekend, and trying to show up as a walk-in is a guarantee of disappointment, because most of the spaces are reserved fully six months in advance. There are about 60 sites serving the lower Mid-Valley, and fewer than 10 of these are “available” without reservations.

So, one might choose instead to try dispersed camping — camping in unofficial locations around the area — but suitable places are limited and generally more enjoyable for fans of broken glass and spent rifle shells.

In my ideal, anyone who wants to camp would be able to find at least a roughed-out piece of dirt in an approved campground with a pit toilet nearby. And all it would take to make it possible is a change in priorities in Washington. The USFS’s first priority should be expanding its inventory of un- and lightly developed opportunities for public access and free enjoyment of our public lands. Somehow, it has been allowed to turn its priorities upside down, and modest, low-cost, low-impact public use finds itself begging for scraps.

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. His idea of luxury camping is a steel fire ring, a wood picnic table and a pit toilet within a couple hundred yards.