Outdoor enthusiasts exploring the wilderness in the Bighorn National Forest can expect an $8 per night fee increase to camp at the Hunter Campground next summer.
A proposal to raise the fee from $10 to $18 has come with no public scrutiny from campers who have seen the posting at the site this summer. But the increase is a sign of the limited wiggle room administrators in the state’s five national forests have with their budgets.
In a world where federal agencies are dealing with the cuts imposed by across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration and at least five years of stagnating budgets, national forests have been able to keep operations running with a facade of familiarity.
But behind the scenes there are questions about how long administrators can continue walking on a budgetary tightrope.
Without the fee boost, Bighorn would have to take money from other
areas of the forest’s budget to maintain the newly designed campground that is equipped with horse corrals, manure pits and a solar-powered water station. The forest’s $6.5 million budget was cut by $500,000 in 2009 and has remained there ever since. Funding needs were so low this year that the $70,000 used to operate the Burgess Junction Visitor Center 50 miles north of Sheridan couldn’t be found. The center remained closed for the summer.
Moving money around to pay for the increased cost in campground upkeep could have meant a decrease in overall maintenance, fewer seasonal employees and less amenities at other facilities.
“We don’t want to have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” said Brian Boden, a natural resource specialist with the Bighorn National Forest.
The campground was originally in a different area that was not engineered for camping, he said.
It was a riparian area where the ground wasn’t flat, cows grazed nearby and a creek would often make the area boggy.
When stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act came up for grabs, Bighorn officials hopped on the opportunity to get federal funds to improve the site. But the improvements, which have been lauded by campers, have come with an unexpected maintenance cost for the forest.
“We’ve created a monster when it comes to maintenance,” Boden said. “Financially it doesn’t work at $10 a head. All we are trying to do is be self-sufficient. We don’t want to make a profit.”
The $8 increase comes from an analysis of prices charged for similar campgrounds in the region’s National Forests, Boden said.
The state’s four other National Forests — Shoshone, Bridger-Teton, Medicine Bow and Black Hills — are not looking at fee increases for next summer. But they are all feeling the pinch in the purse strings.
National Forests are a vital part of the state’s tourism industry and are the buffers and conduits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
With the millions of people who hike, camp and pass through the National Forests every year, it’s a challenge to continue to provide quality services with smaller budgets, said Dennis Jaeger, the acting forest supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest.
There are few good options for dealing with budget shortfalls and price increases. The Black Hills National Forest, which hasn’t proposed price increases or closures of any facilities, may have to do so in the future, he said.
“My take right now — reduced budget means reduced services,” Jaeger said. “We’re taking a look at all campgrounds and can we keep them up and provide a quality experience … It’s going to get interesting.”
The Medicine Bow National Forest charges $10 for campers. Its private competitors charge $5 to $10 more, said Aaron Voos, spokesman for the Medicine Bow National Forest.
“I don’t know how long it will stay that way,” he said.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest is in the middle of accepting bids for hiring a new concessionaire to operate the forest’s campgrounds.
Three companies are bidding to take over campground operations. A key aspect of the bid is how much each company would charge campers, said Linda Merigliano, the recreation program manager for the Jackson Ranger District in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Fees for campsites vary from campground to campground throughout all of the forest, she said.
Merigliano said the new concessionaire would provide some consistency to those fees.
“We’ll probably see some fee changes,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as going up. Campgrounds have a lot of fees. Not a lot of consistency.”
Beginning in October, Shoshone National Forest will be sending out surveys to recreationalists. The yearlong study will track where people go, how they pass their leisure time and what they spend their money on while in the forest, said Kristie Salzmann, spokeswoman for the Shoshone National Forest.
The goal is to see whether visitor habits have remained the same or changed during the past few years.
“It will help us determine where we go from here with recreation,” Salzmann said.