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WRNF calls for campground concessionaire bids

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Most of the 68 campgrounds dotting the vast 2.3 million acres of the White River National Forest (WRNF) are managed by one private company, Vista Recreation (VR). According to VR’s website, it is now the largest operator of outdoor recreation facilities in the nation with a “footprint in 16 states and over 700 locations.” VR began partnering with the WRNF in 2011 and operates campgrounds in the Aspen-Sopris, Blanco, and Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger Districts, but its contract ends this year. The WRNF issued a prospectus in March, calling for management bids for the next 10 years, starting January 2024. 

Section Seven of the Granger-Thye Act is what gives the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) the authority to contract with private companies to manage campgrounds. “It was issued in 1950 and is the law that allows us to allow a third party to occupy federal facilities,” explained Paula Peterson, WRNF’s recreation program manager who administers the concession permit. 

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Peterson told The Sopris Sun that the prospectus, a detailed document with appendices, is part of USFS policy that mandates a competitive bid process for federal campground management. “This permit is authorized at the forest supervisor’s level,” she added. WRNF Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will ultimately issue the permit to the successful bidder after each bid is reviewed by the USFS national and regional offices.

The application is basically a business proposal. The concessionaire is granted a special use permit and is responsible for all operations and maintenance of the recreation facilities as shown in the prospectus.

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According to the WRNF, the gross revenue generated by VR from camping and day-use fees between 2020 and 2022 was a little over $2,367,000. 

“The campground concessionaire charges the camping fee at all of these sites,” explained Peterson. “Then we add up all of those 60-plus sites and that is the campground concessionaire’s revenue.” Other sundry fees, like the sale of firewood, can add to revenue. The concessionaire pays the USFS a fee, based on a specific formula, which can be offset by certain kinds of authorized work.  

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The permittee hires the hosts or management teams to operate the campgrounds. Hosts provide their own self-contained living quarters, like a camper or fifth wheel, and all supplies. They are responsible for making sure the campgrounds and bathrooms are clean, safe and in good shape. They also welcome and educate campers, and collect camping fees.  

Carbondale resident Carolyn Hall has been a host at Avalanche Campground for close to a decade as a volunteer for the USFS. But, that’s changing this year. The WRNF recently made improvements to the campground, including new fire rings, upgraded tables and food lockers to avoid problems with bears. As a result, VR will manage Avalanche this summer and charge a fee to camp. 

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Kendra Head, the developed and dispersed campground recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, told Hall by email in April that her services would no longer be needed. 

“I’m devastated,” said Hall, who shared photos with The Sopris Sun from her nine summers at Avalanche. She has stories of campers and rogue bears, and knows the area well. 

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“That was my life up there,” she said. “That’s what I live for, because I was up there five months out of the year.” Hall added that she isn’t angry with the WRNF. “It’s the government,” she shrugged. But she doubts she’d be hired by VR as a host. “I’ll be 83 in November,” she continued. “I don’t think they’d hire someone my age.” 

David Boyd, WRNF public affairs officer, told The Sopris Sun in an email that the Avalanche campground has always been a part of the current VR permit. “But, we did not have them managing the campground until we had made the upgrades,” he said. “We kept [the campground] open and did not charge to camp there.” Camping at Avalanche remains on a first-come, first-served basis but site fees jump to $18 per night this summer. 

Head told Hall that VR will provide a host at Avalanche. But, Hall worries that the host will be part-time. “The bottom line is, they need a [full-time] host up there,” she warned, citing remoteness, no wifi or cell service, the occasional roaming bear, increased traffic and poor campfire hygiene. “There are people who start fires in high winds,” she exclaimed. “I’ve put out burning fires of campers who left their site and weren’t coming back.“  She sent a letter covering her concerns to Head. VR did not respond to questions from The Sopris Sun by press time.

The most recent concessionaire permit was issued in 2010 and is good for ten years. But, VR is now in its 12th year. “The USFS was not ready or able to get the prospectus on the street [to meet the 10-year deadline],” said Peterson. “So, we amended our existing permit to extend it for two more years.” 

VR’s permit expires Dec. 31, 2023. The company must go through the bidding process to reapply. “They need to bid, just like everyone else,” said Peterson.  

The prospectus is available at The WRNF hosts a two-hour virtual Q&A session July 7, from 10am to noon. RSVP by June 30 to 

Final proposals are due by 4:30 pm July 14. 

Carolyn Hall and her dog, Kodi, walk along the road near Avalanche Campground on a sunny October afternoon. Hall was a volunteer host at the campground for nine summers. Courtesy photo

Tags: #Aspen-Sopris Ranger District #Avalanche Campground #Carolyn Hall #Scott Fitzwilliams #Vista Recreation #White River National Forest #WRNF
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