Pay to play 

Forest Service reservations to go for-profit, online

If you’re planning a cross-country ski trip into one of Montana’s Forest Service cabins this winter, you might want to make your reservation before the beginning of the year. Waiting too long might end up costing you an additional $9.

Last winter, Forest Service ranger districts around the country were told by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to inventory their rental cabins, campsites and fire lookouts for inclusion in the National Recreation Reservation System, a nationwide directory of rental recreation sites.

The NRRS is part of President George Bush’s E-Government Initiative, an Internet-based “one-stop shopping” program designed to streamline government services. The idea is that campers anywhere in the country will be able to log on to a website and reserve any campsite, cabin or other recreational site managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service or other land management agency. The service is scheduled to be in place and online by February.

Neither the Forest Service nor any of the other participating agencies will operate the reservation system, however. Rather, the feds have awarded a controversial management contract to a private, for-profit corporation headed by a legendary entertainment entrepreneur. A second private company that wants in on the action has challenged that award, and a final decision is expected in October, but regardless of which company ultimately wins the bid, says a critic, the entire process is flawed: Turning over the reservation management system of the nation’s public lands to a for-profit company sets a dangerous precedent of privatization and commodification of wild places.

Scott Silver operates a website called Wild Wilderness, from Bend, Ore., and is perhaps the most vocal critic of what he says is an ongoing attempt to tame, sanitize and privatize wild recreational places while federal agency recreational budgets are being slashed. “Starve the beast and create a solution for a problem that was already planned,” is the federal strategy as Silver explains it.

In the mid-1990s, Silver says, the Clinton administration recognized there was untapped money in recreation on federal lands. A plan to privatize some aspects of public lands management was lauded by some, but Silver says those early supporters never envisioned what he saw clearly—the eventual “Disneyfication” of the forest.

His critics have dismissed his caution as nonsensical, but Silver might be more prescient than even he suspected.

In 2004, the federal government awarded the NRRS contract to InterActiveCorp, which owns numerous web-based services, including Ticketmaster, Ask Jeeves, Hotels.com, Match.com and ReserveAmerica. The latter company will manage the Forest Service’s online campsite and cabin rental program if InterActiveCorp ultimately prevails in the bid protest. InterActiveCorp, headquartered in Ballston Spa, N.Y., is headed by Chief Executive Officer Barry Diller, the former chairman of Paramount Pictures who mentored Michael Eisner, former chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Company.

Silver says America’s recreation lands are national treasures that should be adequately funded and held in public ownership for future generations. Allowing a private corporation to manage the reservation system, he says, whittles control away from the Forest Service.

But Terry Knupp, developed recreation program manager at Region One headquarters in Missoula, says the agency is in the land management business, not the reservation business, and though renters will soon pay an extra fee to book reservations they used to get for free, there should be some advantages. The new system is scheduled to go online by February 2006, and when it does, Knupp says, Forest Service cabins like Hogan and May Creek in the Big Hole, and Twogood and East Fork in the Bitterroot, aren’t likely to remain the well kept local secrets they’ve been forever. Knupp says putting them online will make them available to anyone with a computer and Internet service. That makes it fairer for all Americans, and will probably increase occupancy rates, which may translate into more recreation money for the local ranger districts. Another advantage, she says, is that after February 2006, renters will be able to make reservations 24/7, no longer restricted to speed-dialing on the first day of the local reservation period. The new system will also be good for large forests, like the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles, where the sheer number of users means that foresters rarely have the sort of personal, one-on-one relationships with forest users their counterparts in places like Wisdom or Sula enjoy.

Those advantages may make it worth an additional $9—the OMB’s estimated cost of making a reservation through a private company.

But Silver claims there’s been so much opposition to the idea of putting an extra $9 in Barry Diller’s pocket that there’s been discussion amongst Forest Service higher-ups of disguising the fee by rolling it into the overall cost of rentals.

With the contract under protest, it’s unclear whether the online program will be up and running by February 2006, as directed by OMB. Knupp says that when the program does become functional, renters will be directed by reservation operators to a local number they can call to get the sort of on-the-ground information that comes with reservations made at local ranger districts. It’s the same sort of information Montanans get now when they call to reserve a backcountry cabin, without having to pay $9.

news@missoulanews.com

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