Although Recreation Commissioners had a full roster at Tuesday’s meeting in Suite Z, one topic took the floor for longer than one might have expected: Inyo National Forest campground toilets.
A presentation by Mammoth and Mono Deputy District Ranger Mike Schlafmann began innocuously enough. Schlafmann was on hand to discuss fiscal challenges and resource issues faced by the INF with regard to the closure of non-fee Upper/Lower Deadman, Hartley Springs and Obsidian Group camps. He reported that this year all national parks received their budgets much later than normal; INF didn’t receive its budget until June 15, already 75% through the fiscal year. The final budget required a 15% cut to the recreation program, giving the INF “about two weeks to reduce the budget by $400,000.” The result: the INF was forced to lay off five employees, all of whom were subsequently picked up by partners and other organizations, and to close the four aforementioned campgrounds, as well as reducing services and interpretive programs at visitors centers throughout the national forest area.
“We really don’t have a good sense of what kind of budget we’re going to be working with next year,” Schlafmann said. “Best case scenario is it’ll be close to what we have this year,” which is about $1.7 million in appropriated funding, with additional ‘soft money’ from grants and fee collection.
“These are tough circumstances,” Schlafmann acknowledged; “don’t think we take these closures lightly. The challenge is balancing that with all the other services we’re trying to offer on the ground.”
Chair Bill Sauser and Commissioner Sean Turner expressed their frustration and concern with these closures. Chair Sauser voiced his worry that campground closures would have one particular negative impact: campers unfamiliar with dispersal camping would leave dispersal campsites littered with trash and even human waste. Commissioner Turner also had bathrooms on the brain when he related another example of the negative impact of closures: “I was just up at Horseshoe this last weekend,” he said, “and only one side of the toilets were open. That side had a very long line with noticeably discomforted people. That’s not a good visitor’s experience. People might not want to come back.”
Schlafmann agreed that this was a less than ideal situation, but noted that the Horseshoe toilets may have been closed for a temporary maintenance issue, not permanently. Either way, he said, “toilets are a blessing and a curse. The INF has 160 toilets to clean, sometimes twice daily.” If cutting funding for maintenance of some restroom facilities means keeping basic necessities like staff and service hours at INF visitors centers, Schlafmann said, then some toilets will have to go. “It’s as stark as that.”
“I wasn’t sure if that struck home,” Schlafmann said after the meeting. His fear: commissioners’ expectations regarding INF services might not fully take into account the difficult position the INF is in. “This is a zero sum game,” he said. “INF operates on a fixed budget, so to maintain one facility means another facility can’t be maintained.” Furthermore, INF was given strict direction along with its already reduced budget: any deficits in FY11 will be deducted from FY12 budgets. That, coupled with the fact that so much of INF ‘soft money’ comes from grants threatened by the economic downturn, has forced the INF to prioritize and make some tough calls.
Ostensibly the purpose of Schlafmann’s presentation at the meeting was to facilitate a discussion of possible INF-Town partnerships. “We’re ready to partner with whoever is interested,” said Schlafmann; however, “it’s challenging if you’re not sure your partners have a clear strategy when it comes to the potential impact of the Hot Creek settlement.”
Chief Sauser steered the conversation back to toilets with a suggestion for one possible partnership: “there may be local businesses willing to help with bathroom maintenance if you put up a plaque,” he said. Commissioner Teri Stehlik’s dry response: “That’s always what I wanted my name on.”
All joking aside, Schlafmann reminded the commissioners “it’s not just about bathrooms, although that’s the most obvious example; you see it and experience it.” INF is looking at many more tough cuts to meet its budget constraints while still providing necessary services for the four million visitors who pass through the Inyo National Forest every year. But, reported Schlafmann, “Overall, anecdotally, the closures do not seem to be having a substantial effect on visitation. In fact, numbers for visitors centers, campgrounds and Reds Meadow are up as of July.”