Campgrounds on Lockdown
A United States Forest Service padlock locks the gate at the Dolly Copp campground picnic area in Gorham, N.H. Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. Some campgrounds in New HampshireÕs White Mountains National Forest will be forced to close ahead of the lucrative Columbus Day weekend because of the federal government shutdown, according to the U.S. Forest Service. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Leaves begin to change colors in the White Mountain National Forest in Randolph, N.H. Sunday Oct. 6, 2013. Some privately run campgrounds in New HampshireÕs White Mountains National Forest will be forced to close ahead of the lucrative Columbus Day weekend because of the federal government shutdown, according to the U.S. Forest Service. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Call to reserve a spot at one of 22 privately operated campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest for a Columbus Day weekend of fall foliage and outdoor recreation, and you’ll find yourself up a creek without a paddle.
“Due to the government shutdown, reservations for all federal facilities and activities are currently unavailable,” the answering machine recording states. “Customers with effective reservations during the shutdown period will be notified.”
Marily Reese, executive director of the National Forest Recreation Association, said the forest service sent a letter to its campground concessionaires like Kent Tower, the owner of Thornton-based Pro Sport Inc., telling them they needed to close their camps until the shutdown ends. Tower could not be reached for comment.
Tower has a “special use agreement” with the federal government that allows him to operate his 22 campgrounds and three day-use camps, meaning he runs Pro Sport Inc. on federal land and pays the government a percentage of the fees he collects from campers.
By this agreement, a concessionaire like Tower is required to use the National Recreation Reservation Service administered by a multi-agency group of federal agencies to set up reservations for his camps over the phone or online at recreation.gov, Reese said. That website shut down early last week.
But the small businesses running the campgrounds, like Tower’s, are responsible for all other aspects of upkeep and maintenance.
Campground concessionaires “provide trash cleanup, graffiti cleanup,” Reese said. “They have to ensure the campground are safe. They have to get rid of the hazard trees. They do every single bit of work.”
Tower does not receive any federal money to run his campground business, Reese said.
“The government does not pay them,” she said. “They pay revenue to the government. It’s mystifying to us as to why the government would want to shut down a revenue-producing business.”
Privately operated campgrounds remained open during the last federal government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, Reese said. And even though the forest service has ordered the campgrounds to close, the White Mountain National Forest is still open to hikers and campers who want to pitch their tents at random. Like furloughed forest service employees, the campground employees who normally pick up trash and protect the forest area will now be at home until the shutdown ends.
“The best protection of resources would be to leave the campgrounds open,” she said.
New Hampshire state parks and campgrounds are unaffected by the shutdown and will remain open. The state Department of Parks and Recreation added a special notice on its website that directs visitors to the operating schedules of those facilities.
All four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation condemned the Forest Service decision to close the White Mountains campgrounds as part of the shutdown, saying it would hit small business revenues hard. Staff from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s office contacted White House staff Wednesday and are working toward a resolution with them on the closures, a spokesman said.
“These closures are going to particularly hurt small businesses because they rely on the millions of visitors coming to the White Mountain National Forest to meet their bottom lines, especially during the foliage season,” Shaheen said in a statement.
In a letter to forest service U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte said closing the campgrounds ahead of Columbus Day weekend would “needlessly threaten their viability, along with the local jobs that they provide.”
“Small business owners form the backbone of our nation’s tourism industry and are the economic engine of recreation-based communities nationwide,” Ayotte wrote. “While the shutdown is harming private tourism-based businesses near federal lands, I am concerned that the Forest Service is unfairly targeting private businesses with which it contracts – even though those businesses are independently operated.”
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter also wrote to the forest service in defense of the campgrounds.
“There is really no reason to close these campgrounds down,” Shea-Porter wrote. “No federal money is spent to run these locations, as the private operators pay for maintenance, upkeep and insurance.”
In her own statement, Rep. Ann Kuster called closing the campgrounds “unacceptable.”
“New Hampshire’s fall tourism season is vital to our state’s economy and to the families and businesses who proudly serve visitors year in and year out,” she said. “This is yet another reason we must fully reopen the government and restore services to communities across the Granite State.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)