22 NH areas affected by shutdown

New Hampshire Sunday News
October 06. 2013 12:30AM
Fall foliage, like that seen in this 2012 photo, attracts many visitors to the White Mountain National Forest. This week, the shutdown of the U.S. government will prompt the closure of 22 federal campgrounds as the Columbus Day holiday approaches. (FILE PHOTO)

The federal government is ordering all 22 privately run campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest to close this week as part of the ongoing government shutdown - just days before the peak Columbus Day weekend.

However, New Hampshire tourism officials note that other private campgrounds and state parks in the White Mountains will be open. The Division of Parks and Recreation posted a notice on its website that "NH State Parks are not part of the government shutdown" and provided a quick link to "camping in NH state parks." (For New Hampshire travel and tourism information, go to: visitnh.gov.)

Kent Tower, who runs the federal campgrounds, estimates the closure will cost him $50,000. And Tower, president of Pro Sport Inc. in Thornton, says the economic impact will ripple through the North Country.

"This is a very big weekend that's coming up," he said.

With about 1,000 campsites and an average of five campers expected per site, he said, "that's about 5,000 people that can't come."Closure will affect all the area businesses that depend on these visitors, he said. "All the people that have restaurants, or have gas stations or have little stores are going to be hurt because we're shut down."

The campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) are open this weekend. But Tower said the U.S. Forest Service notified him on Friday to expect a letter Monday giving him 48 hours to close them.

The irony is that the closings will also cost the federal government money.

Marily Reese, executive director of the National Forest Recreation Association, explained why.

Across the country, "concessionaires" such as Tower bid on contracts to run facilities on federal lands, Reese said. From the fees they collect, they pay the government a certain percentage.

Tower, who has had the contract to run the WMNF campgrounds for 22 years, said he pays the government on average about 22 percent of gross revenues, more

than $200,000 annually. No federal money is spent to run the sites, he said.

"We pay all the maintenance, all the upkeep, all the help, all the insurance," he said.

"All the trucks, all the equipment is ours. They have nothing to do with it."

Reese said the move is political.

In past shutdowns, she said, national forest campgrounds stayed open even when national parks, which are staffed by federal employees, were closed.

This time, she said, she's been told that the Obama administration decided to close facilities on all federal lands "because of consistency."

"Some braniac in the administration decided they were going to shut down the concessionaires in the national forests, anybody that was operating a government-owned facility."

She accused the government of being "inconsistent in their consistency."

Reese said her members, who operate facilities on federal lands across the country, have been getting phone calls from officials telling them they have 48 hours to close. Some have already ceased operations.

However, she's advising members to wait until they receive official letters from the government, since such orders amount to changing the contracts these private businesses have with the government.

"Shutting down a contract is a legal, technical issue," she said. "They have to be instructed by letter that there's a change in that contract."

Tower said a sympathetic supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service here has told him the official letter is coming Monday, so he plans to close his 22 campgrounds on Wednesday.

"Basically, it's a power move," he said. "The Forest Service really didn't want to do this.

"It's been very unfair on our end to lose this Columbus Day weekend, but it's something that they can't control. Someone above the Forest Service told them to do it."

Reese called the situation "shameful."

"Forest Service personnel are not needed for these campgrounds to run," she said. "The concessionaires do all the work. They provide the security, collect the money, clean the restrooms, haul the trash.

"That's why it's frustrating that some bureaucrat said, 'Let's close them all down.'"

Tower said he's already seen the effects of the government shutdown. Tour buses filled with leaf-peepers have been stopping to use his rest rooms since facilities run by the Forest Service were closed last week.

The only other time Tower recalls shutting the campgrounds was during Tropical Storm Irene two years ago.

"That was a whole different thing," he said. "That was an emergency. This is not an emergency.

"My feeling is it's a push to make a lot of people upset," he said. "The more people are upset, the more they're going to go scream to their representatives to get this resolved.

"It's unfortunate because this didn't need to happen. We're just the little guys."

He feels sorry for the other local businesses. "We're a close-knit community," he said. "I always want to see everybody do well. Us closing hurts them."

But Tower added: "We're hoping that somehow a miracle may happen, and if we stretch this a little bit, maybe they'll actually make an agreement by next Wednesday. It doesn't look like it, but you never know.

"The only way it can not happen is if Congress gets their act together. Once they get their act together and they agree upon it and the shutdown is done, then we'll be back in business. And I think everybody now is looking forward to that happening."

The U.S. Forest Service could not be reached for comment.

Tiffany Benna, public affairs officer for the WMNF, left a recorded message that she is "on furlough due to the lapse in federal government funding" and would return messages once funding is restored. An email sent to her prompted a similar response.

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