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Skull Hollow campground becomes a recreation fee case study

It’s Not Just About the Five Bucks: An area campground becomes a recreation fee case study
The Source
Written by Mike Bookey
Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Up past Smith Rock State Park, on a road lined with farmland and flanked by pine-covered hills on each side, there’s a small brown sign that you’d miss if you weren’t keeping a keen eye out. But it’s a sign that seasoned climbers from Central Oregon and beyond know well. It marks the entrance to the Skull Hollow Campground, a small collection of picnic-table-and-fire-pit camp sites nestled amongst brush and scattered trees.

The campground is rather primitive, as far as campgrounds go. Other than the tables and fire pits, the only other amenities are a dirt road that loops through the grounds and a pair of toilets that are basically just pits in the ground and on a recent afternoon were absent of toilet paper. For years, Skull Hollow has been a refuge for weary climbers who spend the days tackling Smith Rock and retreat the roughly eight miles to Skull Hollow to sack down for the night come sundown. And they’ve always done so for free – Skull Hollow hasn’t required a fee, only a 14-day limit on stays. But a public lands advisory committee has recommended that the campground include a $5 nightly per-site fee, and anti-public-land-fee groups, as well as climbers have taken issue with the fact that come May 15, Skull Hollow (which is currently not planned to receive improvements or additional facilities) will no longer be a free campground.

Opponents say that their issue with a fee at Skull Hollow isn’t about the five bucks, but rather the increasing prevalence of pay to play on public lands. While the initial fee is minimal, they say the process has major flaws, and in this case is possibly illegal.

The recommendation for the fee at Skull Hollow was unanimously passed by the Pacific Northwest Recreation Resource Advisory Committee – a group of volunteer members ranging from guides to state tourism officials who represent different areas of the outdoor recreation arena and make recommendations on new or increased recreation fees on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land – at a January 30 meeting in Portland. Skull Hollow was just one of the sites that was recommended for a new fee or increase at the meeting.

The idea of a fee at Skull Hollow has been discussed for years now, and beginning in 2006 the public began writing into the Crooked River National Grasslands (the 110,000-plus-acre, Forest-Service-managed area that encompasses Skull Hollow) to comment on the proposal. In the 29 comments received by the agency, only two were in support of the fee, which is why people like Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a Bend-based non-motorized outdoor recreation group with a national presence, find the decision troubling.

“In this case it’s not the $5 that’s my concern. The reason I’m raising concern over this is the way in which the (Pacific Northwest) Rec RAC broke the law in approving this,” says Silver, who has long been a watchdog of what he sees as a move by federal agencies to privatize public lands. He has previously referred to this as the “Disneyfication of the wild” and organized more than 100 protests in 16 different states.

Silver says that the committee is required to show that there is “general public support” for an issue before a recommendation should be made. Silver is referring to the committee’s bylaws, Section VI of which requires the committee to “include documentation of general public support” in their recommendations to agency officials for a fee.

Kitty Benzar, the president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based group that opposes all fees on public lands, attended the Portland meeting and also objects as to how the committee proceeded in regard to the public comments opposing a fee at Skull Hollow.

“The actual proposal documented that almost every comment opposed the increase and we reminded them that under the law they need to see evidence of public support,” Benzar says, who adds that nationwide these types of committees were meant to act as “rubber stamps” for fee increases.

Dennis Oliphant lives in Bend and is the owner and founder of rafting guide company Sun Country Tours and is also the chairman of the Pacific Northwest Recreation RAC. Oliphant says that there is a misconception as to the committee’s role when it comes to public commentary and that the committee is making its decision based on a presentation by the Forest Service or BLM at their meetings.

“We look at the presentation before us and then make a decision,” Oliphant says, “The important thing to realize here is that this an advisory group and we have no decision-making authority.”

Acknowledging that Oliphant is correct that the committee is, in fact, an advisory group, Benzar says that for all intents and purposes, the recommendation of the committee is a final decision. Should the agency wish to overrule a Recreation RAC, the issue would have to be passed on to committees in both the House and Senate. Benzar believes that rather than send the issue up to legislators, Forest Service and BLM secretaries approve recommendations, even if there are concerns about public support of the recommendation.

“To me, Skull Hollow has become the poster child for the process. The committee substituted their judgment for the will of the people,” says Benzar, “This is probably the worst single example of [disregard for comments from the public] I’ve ever seen.”

Oliphant says that one of the committee’s responsibilities is to make sure the agency has “done their due diligence” in researching the issue, which includes presenting budgetary issues pertinent to the particular site. He also says that sometimes public comments aren’t always the best measure of the correct course of action for the agency.

“Most of the time they would get no input or very little input. If 100 percent of the input was opposed and that was two letters – and that’s just an example – the agency has to weigh that decision,” Oliphant says.

Benzar reiterates that the argument here is hardly about the actual $5 fee, but more focused on what it means to put any sort of fee on a previously no-fee campground like Skull Hollow. She says that once a site has a fee, it’s common for the agencies to increase that amount as time goes by.

“Keep in mind that right now the $5 fees are all going up to $10,” she says, referencing several fee hikes around the region in recent years.

Wild Wilderness’ Scott Silver says that now that the Forest Service is in the “business of selling camping,” the agency is looking at private campground fees and adjusting their prices accordingly. Such is the case, he says, with the campgrounds operated locally by Hoodoo Recreation.

“What [Hoodoo CEO] Chuck [Shepard] is saying to the FS is that you can’t keep the prices artificially low because I can’t raise my prices,” Silver says.

In a 2007 letter to Detroit Ranger District, Shepard wrote: “I don’t know why the USFS feels the need to hold the fees lower than the market would say is reasonable…Please do not hold your fees artificially low, this actually hurts the concessionaire model which I know that the national USFS is anxious to have work.”

Oliphant says that while he would like to see “free and open lands,” he and other committee members acknowledge that campgrounds like Skull Hollow require money for maintenance and regulation. And while the Forest Service does provide some maintenance at the site, Skull Hollow also receives help from people like Ian Caldwell, a member of the Smith Rock Group.

In the past, the non-profit group has provided volunteer maintenance to the campground, including emptying the toilets. In the minutes of the January Recreation RAC meeting, the issue was raised of whether the group would continue to provide this service should Skull Hollow become a fee site. Caldwell says the group has yet to decide how they’ll proceed with their maintenance.

“We’ve discussed it a little bit, but if they’re charging a fee to have an employee go out there and do that, there’s not really reason for us to do it,” says Caldwell, who first stayed at Skull Hollow in 1991.

Caldwell also illustrates another possible problem that could result from the mere $5-a-night fee at Skull Hollow.

“The climbing community is looking for free camping and we recognize that if they don’t have a free camping site they’ll move to another place,” says Caldwell.

He believes that climbers and others looking for a free night of camping will simply continue past Skull Hollow and camp off the grid, thus impacting nearby wilderness areas.

The issue of recreation fees may soon take the national spotlight with the introduction of a bill by senators Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) that would repeal the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). Baucus told NewWest.Net last week that “we shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on our public lands.”

Silver feels that the FLREA, which is sometimes referred to as the Recreation Access Tax (RAT) by opponents, is flawed in that it allows an agency to keep the money it collects, thus creating an increase in incentive to raise fees.

But congressional change or not, out at Skull Hollow, likely somewhere near the message board that informs campers of the seemingly loosely enforced 14-day limit, will soon appear a box. And this is where campers can drop their $5 bill.

Comments (3) >>

Kitty Benzar said:
Mike, you have done a great job of making a complex issue understandable. I only want to make a slight correction that the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition does not oppose ALL fees on public lands, only the new fees that came into being under Fee Demo in 1996 and have been made permanent under the FLREA or RAT. To wit: fees for trails, roads, overlooks, toilets, wilderness, and undeveloped backcountry.
In general we do not oppose fees for developed campgrounds like Skull Hollow. But in the case of Skull Hollow, the Forest Service openly flouted the provisions in the law that require them to obtain and document general public support. And the so-called citizen advisory committee allowed them to get away with it.
It's a perfect example of why the FLREA needs to be repealed - there is not one clause in that law that is working as intended.
The bill to accomplish repeal was introduced last week into the US Senate as S.868 and I am sure it will receive wide support from climbers and other public lands users. We will be working hard to get it passed.
Other than that small correction, Great Article!

April 29, 2009 Sophie Says said:
"PAY TO PLAY".........don't we already pay taxes for public recreation areas? This is just another example of USFS arrogance...with "loosy-goosy" innterpretations of a law that SHOULD NOT BE. Yes, the lonely little trailer is a great visual example for, as Kitty Benzar put it.......the "POSTER CHILD!"

April 30, 2009 Jim Fuge said:
This is the classic example on the echo chamber that exists between commerce and the FS/BLM. Despite the 29 to 2 majority of people who oppose this particular fee, despite enormous public outcry for over 12 years to the people's senators and representatives that they don't want more fees on public lands. The FS/BLM just merrily proceed to invoke fees, treating the laws and overwhelming public voice against fees like an annoying buzzing din, instead of the Will of the People.
Then the FS/BLM use such lame canards as the advisory group unanimously decided the fees were a good idea. (after the advisory group drinks the purple Kool-Aid, of the FS/BLM pitch for fees) WHOMP down comes the rubber stamp!

Then the advisory group member Denis Oliphant (owns a local rafting company) pipes up with an oily daisy chain of excuses when confronted with the number of people opposed to those who support. 29 to 2.

Well we're just an advisory group responding to the FS/BLM presentation. (how do you spell echo chamber) Sometimes the people don't always know what is best. Maintenance has to be paid for somehow. WHOMP, down comes the rubber stamp!

Here's another way to put his excuses.

We're just advising that it's OK if the camel's nose get's under the tent flap, because the camel's owner says it'll be OK. How is the camel going to eat if we don't let him in and feed him? Sometimes people in the tent don't always know what's best for them. (Camels are people too!)
Then we find out Oliphant and others like Hoodoo CEO Chuck Sheppard have some camels of their own to feed. (Sheppard owns a competing private camping area) Hey, why is that camel being fed for less, it costs me more to feed my camels, they should raise their prices!

These Lands, even a humble patch of scratched out free camping dirt with the unappealing name of Skull Hollow, are our countries national legacy of Commons Lands, not a feeding trough for the recreation industries camels. For over 12 YEARS, since Fee DEMO's inception and permutations, the people in the tent have out cried against these camels being let in the tent.

But the FS/BLM are tone deaf.
'What's that annoying little buzzing din, it sure is bothersome. Let's just ignore it, the camel owners say it's no big deal!'
My solution,...shoot the damn camel, it's just a huge R.A.T.!

The Source Weekly
Subscribe to The Source!

Note: This Source article shown above was sent to us by Kitty Benzar, President, Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.

Here is her truth telling comment on this process:
"From The Source Weekly in Bend Oregon comes this article describing how the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee process, which was supposed to ensure public participation in fee decisions, is really working.

The law says that "A recommendation may be submitted to the Secretary only if the recommendation is approved by a majority of the members of the committee from each of the categories specified . . . and general public support for the recommendation is documented."

In the case of this primitive campground in Oregon, the forest received 29 comments, of which 25 expressed a clear position either for or against the proposal. Of those, 22 were opposed to the new fee. Clearly this was a proposal that did not have "general public support" and thus the committee was obligated by law not to approve it.

Yet they did approve it, unanimously. This case shows clearly, as documented in our analysis report, The Fix Is In, that the Recreation Resource Advisory Committees are not functioning as a safeguard in the public interest, to limit recreation fees, but rather as a channel to facilitate them.

This is yet another example that demonstrates why the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act needs to be repealed. A bill to accomplish that is pending in the U.S. Senate as S.868 The Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2009. I again urge you to contact your U.S. Senators and urge them to support this bill and move it swiftly to passage."

Western Slope No-Fee Coalition

Thanks Kitty!
--Robert Speik


What is the view of Smith Rock Climbers? Forum
Ian Caldwell
Posted: Wed Nov 10, 2010
Subject: Skull Hollow Winter Closure

Climbers! Please READ the following and comment to the USFS

The Issue:

Skull Hollow Campground near Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon will be closing for several months over the winter of 2010-2011. In 2009 the United States Forest Service (USFS) started charging fees and in 2010 turned the site over to a private concessionaire. The USFS only required the concessionaire to keep the site open from April 1 to October 31.

Skull Hollow is a popular camping site for climbers because of its remoteness, and access to USFS land, trails, and open space. Also, fires and car camping are permitted at Skull Hollow (unlike other local camping options), and the campground receives little snow fall so it can be used all winter.

On October 31 the concessionaire closed Skull Hollow Campground intending to keep it closed for 5 months through April 1. The first weekend November 6-7, 2010 the site was closed, many people just camped outside the campground. Multiple phone calls and emails to the Forest Service promoted them to ask the concessionaire to keep the site open longer. They have agreed to keep it open through November and reopen it March 1. This still leaves 3 months of the site being closed. Although winter is cold, a forecast of a sunny weekend can fill the campground.

Additionally, the USFS is getting ready to sign a 5 year agreement which still allows 5 months of closure time.

What Can You Do:

The USFS staff says that if they hear from enough people they might change the closure period. We need your help. Please email and phone USFS staff and let them know that you want the site left open during the winter. We need people from all over the US, Canada, Europe or anywhere else to write or call in. It can be a simple email saying where you live, you want to camp at Skull Hollow between Nov 1 – April 1.

You can expand the scope of your email by adding:
• Concern of resource damages from dispersed camping (Skull Hollow was constructed because of past problems from dispersed camping)
• how nice of a site it is,
• your positive past experiences that you have had at Skull Hollow CG,
• that you spend money in Central Oregon,
• the importance of camping opportunities near popular climbing areas,
• how well climbers take care of climbing areas and campsites
• the need for a site where you can have fires and car/van/rv camping,
• your vehicle is not capable of traveling further up the un-maintained rutted road to look for a camping spot (there are not many of them),

Please email or call:
Kent Koller: 541 416-6482 541 416-6482 .
Cathy Lund 541 416-6650 541 416-6650


More Detailed information about the problem:

The USFS is allowing a private concessionaire to close Skull Hollow Campground near Smith Rock Oregon for 5 months each winter. Skull Hollow is popular with climbers. Over the years they created a gravel loop road, installed 2 vault toilets, picnic tables and fire pits. In 2009 they started charging fees. Many people choose to camp at Skull Hollow because you can sleep in your vehicle (trucks, vans, RVs, etc.) and you can have campfire, both you cannot do at Smith Rock due to small area and many neighbors. Smith Rock is a year round climbing area.

Last year they started charging fees. Now the USFS has a private concessionaire, who had a one year agreement to take care of the site. The USFS wrote in the contract that the concessionaire only had to keep the site open from April 1 to October 31, but can keep it open longer if they desire. The concessionaire is a large company in Utah who has many campgrounds throughout the Northwest, they pay a camp host a small amount of money to take care of the site. Additionally, the USFS holds the concessionaire responsible for damages to the site, even during the off season so it creates a financial risk to keep the site open without a host. The USFS is in the process of reassigning the agreement to the same company for a 5 year period of time under the same conditions. There was ZERO public input or consultation about the 5 month closure with local climbers or the Smith Rock Group (who have historically help fund the pumping of the toilets and cleanup of the site)

My History of the site:
I started camping here in 1991. At that time it was a wide spot along a gravel road. Over the years more people learned about the site and it became the place to camp. I remember one year when a horse event was held in the middle of the summer. There were hundreds of horse trailers and campers out there, which really impacted the site. Much of the vegetation was knocked down and after that the campsites just spread all over the area. During the 1990’s the owner of Redpoint Climbers Supply was paying to keep portable toilets at the site. I believe around 1996 the USFS installed 2 vault toilets, laid down a gravel loop road, and fenced the area to keep cattle out. But at the same time they also banned all camping along the road, from the paved road for about one mile. From that point on, there are very few campsites, unless you drive several more miles up the road. The Smith Rock Group, who hold annual volunteer work days at Smith Rock started to pay one half of the cost of pumping the toilets and would send volunteers out each year to clean up the area and help to install fire grates. Over the years the USFS continued to add fire grates and picnic tables. Around 2007 or 2008 the economy really started to crash in Central Oregon. Skull Hollow was getting overrun with homeless. There were reports of domestic disputes, heavy drug use and late night fights. It was common to drive out there as see multiple homeless camps with ratty old trailers and garbage and junk all around the campsite. The USFS already had a 14 day stay limit at the site but it was rarely enforced. In 2009 the USFS passed a fee to help maintain the site and to help prevent the homeless from living there. Many people were opposed to the fee, citing that the people would be dispersed to other areas and that the USFS already had a mechanism to deal with the homeless, the 14 day stay limit. The USFS tried to run the campground for a year without a host. Someone stole the fee station. The USFS decided they “needed more help” with the site and decided to turn the site over to a private concessionaire. Now the site is slated to be closed for 5 months of the year. This site truly sees year round use. USFS staff would typically patrol during the day and would not see campers. Especially in the winter months people would spend the day recreating, go eat dinner in town and head out the Skull Hollow later in the evening. November and February are fairly busy. March is one of the busiest months of the year with good weather and 3 weeks of Spring Break with the Oregon, Washington and California school systems. Some people think there is no use in December and January, but we often get warm sunny days in the middle of the winter and the park and camping are very popular.

There is camping at Smith Rock State Park, which provides walk in tent sites and showers. But the grasslands provide a different experience for people. I think it is important to have multiple camping options around Smith Rock.

This was the first weekend that the site was closed of November 6 and 7 there were 26 tents outside of the campground, since the USFS failed to post no camping sites and failed to provide any public notice of the closure of the site. As of November 10th the USFS own website still states the site is open year round.
--Ian Caldwell


Concessionaires temporarily reopen area near Smith Rock!

Climbers want campground open
Concessionaires temporarily reopen area near Smith Rock
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
November 13. 2010

Climbers who flock to Smith Rock — even in the late fall and winter months — are asking the U.S. Forest Service and its new campground concessionaire to keep the popular Skull Hollow campground open year-round.

Aud & Di Campground Services initially shut the gates to the campground at the end of October, surprising dozens of campers who showed up last weekend. And although the campground company has decided to reopen the campground until the end of November, some rock climbers are advocating for it to remain open.

“It caught everyone off-guard,” said Ian Caldwell, a member of the volunteer Smith Rock Group who has been climbing at the site for almost 20 years. “The first weekend it was closed, there was a ton of people.”

He counted 26 tents set up outside of the campground on Nov. 6, he said — and more probably showed up that night.

Although he now lives nearby, Caldwell used to live in the Willamette Valley, and said he would come to Smith Rock on the weekends — even during the winter. And there were others camping as well, he said.

“We feel it’s justified that it stays open,” Caldwell said.

David Potter, owner of Smith Rock Climbing Guides, spent a winter at the campground when he about 19, and said that climbers, like surfers, will often go to a site and camp out for a while — even in the colder months.

“It’s kind of a traditional thing to go out and hit the road for a while,” Potter said. “Closing it, I think, is a bad idea. People are going to still camp out there; they’re just going to extend out from the campground.”

Closing a campground, with its constructed fire rings and toilets, can also pose a hazard to the surrounding environment, Caldwell said.

“If you close the gates, now you’re sending campers to another place,” Caldwell said. “They compact the soil, they make a fire pit, they use the trees as toilets. When that happens once in a while, it’s not that big of a deal, but when it happens over and over, they’re more of an impact.”

The Skull Hollow campground was built to help keep people from camping at scattered sites, he said, but closing it in the winter could lead to that issue again.

The Smith Rock Group is willing to help keep the site open, he said, although he’s not sure what form the help would take.

And climbers have been contacting the Forest Service to tell the agency that is it a concern, in hopes of keeping the campground open.

Caldwell said that he went out Sunday and on Veteran’s Day and got 110 signatures on a petition, including those of people from Seattle, New Hampshire, Canada, Paris and Germany, as well as more local hometowns.

“People are still making long-distance travel trips here in November,” he said.

The Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland, like many forests, don’t have the resources and staff they need to manage Skull Hollow and other campgrounds, said Lisa Clark, spokeswoman with the agency. In order to make up for that, they have partnered with volunteer groups as well as concessionaires to run some of the campgrounds — including Skull Hollow.

“For them it’s a business, so it does need to be economically viable,” Clark said. “And for those reasons, campgrounds close during the winter.”

Other options in the area include walk-in sites at Smith Rock State Park, West Shore Campground at Haystack Reservoir, and Cyrus Horse Camp.

Although the concessionaire’s contract states that Skull Hollow only has to be open from April 1 to Oct. 31, it has agreed to stay open until the end of this month, and then reopen a month early — on March 1.

“They’ve had a lot of inquiries from people, and the Ochoco has had inquires, so we’ve agreed to extend it,” she said.

The campground company has an employee who makes sure things are clean at the campground, said Steve Hunn, who owns Aud & Di Campground Services with his wife. And they’ll keep an eye on how many people are there, to see if it makes sense to keep the campground open.

“If we see traffic that justifies keeping it open year-round, we’d be willing to do that,” Hunn said. “If there’s snow and ice, we probably won’t have climbers.”





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Department of Inferior dumps wilderness protection
An ODFW juvenile steelhead sampling project near John Day, Oregon
The ODFW juvenile steelhead survey in the stream
Owyhee Canyon wilderness study area in south east Oregon
ONDA's Owyhee wilderness inventory camp near Rome, Oregon
Riverfest river cleanup in Bend Oregon
USFS Mud Bog poster
A Pay to Play bust
President Bush reassures us that SUVs do not damage the environment!
President Bush overlooking the environment
Al Gore and his young son summit Mt. Rainier
Fee Demo demonstration in Central Oregon