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Campgrounds face the knife
The Dalles Chronicle
November 22, 2006

Got a favorite campground? Don't count on it being there forever.

Rising expenses and a shrinking budget are forcing USDA Forest Service officials to consider closing hundreds of campgrounds, picnic areas and other recreation facilities across the country.

By the end of 2007, each of 155 national forests and 20 grasslands must complete a recreation-site facility master plan.

One factor driving the review is the need to upgrade campground water systems to meet tougher federal drinking-water standards, officials said.

Federal officials said they are weighing the value of each of roughly 15,000 campgrounds, trailheads with bathrooms and other developed recreation sites in the 193 million acres under the agency's authority against the costs of maintaining them.

"I think Timberline Lodge is a keeper," said Malcolm Hamilton, recreation program director for the Mount Hood National Forest.

But all the sites in the Mt. Hood forest will face an evaluation process.

"There are roughly 200 sites where we have capital investment," he said, "toilets, parking areas, water systems. Out of that number, 84 are campgrounds. Other facilities include trailheads, picnic areas, snowparks, other day use areas, lookouts, and cabins at Tilly Jane and Olallie Lake."

Hamilton described the decision-making as a four-step process. "First is to go into our inventory data base and do some scrubbing of the data," he said. "That hasn't been done in a couple of years."

Such data might include the status of the facilities, the occupancy rates, maintenance costs, and the costs of bringing them up to today's standards.

Step two, Hamilton said, involves an examination of "the portion of the recreation picture that we do well at providing," and determining who is using those facilities.

The third step in the process, said Hamilton, would be to "crunch out some numbers" from data obtained in the first two steps and determine a ranking for the various sites. That would lead to a set of recommendations to the regional forester with timelines for implementation.

Nationally, Forest Service officials said implementation might take as long as five years.

The final step would involve input from the taxpayers.

"Before anything actually happens at any site, we will go through a more traditional planning process, involving the public," Hamilton said.

Dan Harkenrider, manager of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said the Forest Service sites in the gorge would be facing the same review. "The good news is," he said, "we have so few recreational facilities compared to the Mt. Hood National Forest, and our campgrounds and trailheads are quite popular. We may look for other partners to help with maintenance costs, but there are no plans for closure of any of our assets."

That would be good news to Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

"The people who go to parks are not just Republicans or Democrats," he said. "It's more of a nonpartisan issue. One of the main purposes of National Scenic Area Act is to protect the natural resources. People want to keep these open, and it's up to the elected officials to do the right thing. I would be hopeful, with some of the changes in the House and the Senate, we're going to see rekindled interest in funding agencies properly."

Gorman also praised efforts of partnerships between groups. "The kind of thing they've done with the Klickitat Trail Conservancy is helping to keep parks alive," he said.

"I think the bigger picture is, the Forest Service budget is being starved by the Bush administration and Congress." said Eric Fernandez of Oregon Wild, formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "This plan is not coming from the local staff. The great irony is, it doesn't cost that much to run a campground, and at the same time, higher-ups are pushing these expensive, controversial old-growth logging projects."

Finding the money to even maintain sites at their current levels may be difficult.

Most campgrounds were built in the 1960s and are either out-of-date or falling apart. The Forest Service faces a $346 million backlog in maintenance; 42 percent of its current budget is dedicated to the ever-growing cost of fire suppression.

It didn't help that the Forest Service budget for 2007 was cut 2.5 percent to $4.9 billion.

"Every place is special to someone," said Malcom Hamilton of the Mt. Hood National Forest, "but we also have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the taxpayer's money.

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