Editor’s Note: This blog is the second of a series exploring the role of innovation finance in forest management.
One major function of the Forest Service is to offer recreation opportunities on lands the public can access. National forests and grasslands receive approximately 150 million visits annually, a number which is expected to grow in the coming years.
With the increase of visitors there is an increased need to modernize campgrounds and address deferred maintenance backlogs, which have also continued to grow.
“These mounting needs have been difficult to address,” said Nathalie Woolworth, a program manager with the Forest Service’s National Partnership Office. “We are exploring new finance solutions with our partners as a part of the Innovative Finance for National Forests Grant Program to develop innovative financial models that may overcome some of forest management’s most vexing financial challenges.”
One such grant was awarded to the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation to develop a pilot business plan identifying non-federal funding sources that could support campground maintenance and infrastructure needs on the Inyo National Forest in California’s Eastern Sierra. Currently, estimated deferred maintenance costs for each of the Inyo’s 93 campgrounds is between $300,000 and $3 million.
“Campgrounds and recreation facilities on the Inyo National Forest are in need of improvement due to aging and undermaintained infrastructure,” said John Wentworth Chief Executive Officer and President of the Board of Directors for the foundation.
In addition, the needs and expectations of the campground audience have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. One example of these changing expectations is antiquated campground layouts, many of which do not accommodate larger contemporary recreation vehicles or sport utility vehicles.
“It’s these small projects that build up over time that together become unmanageable,” said Nora Gamino, forest engineer on the Inyo National Forest. “There’s work that continuously needs to be done but not necessarily an adequate flow of funding to maintain the infrastructure. Every 10 years or so there comes an injection of money to complete some of that work, but every decade is not often enough.”
“It’s the difference between preventative maintenance and capital maintenance like oil changes in a car. If we neglect our infrastructure until it’s broken the cost of repair will be higher.”
This is where innovation finance may offer a solution. Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation’s plan is to identify those private landowners, businesses, utility companies, and other government agencies with a common interest in a healthy recreation industry. These groups could invest capital into campground facility maintenance and modernization, helping to solve potential funding gaps.
“Creating functional alignments between parties that are rooted in shared interests are critical to the success of any partnership,” Gamino said. “This is true in our personal relationships, as common business interests in the private sector, and certainly in partnered efforts between public agencies. These functional alignments are already common practices when addressing other challenges in the Forest Service, such as sustainable recreation and shared stewardship.”
Though this project is a very specific experiment about how Forest Service costs related to campgrounds may be shared through calculated investments, there is big-picture potential. The project may be a scalable solution to address agency recreational infrastructure needs across several areas such as trails and water systems and increase access to the great outdoors for Californians across the state, and forest lovers across the country.