Do seniors deserve public lands campground discounts?

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March 26, 2010


By Bob Difley

I can remember when I reached age 62 and bought my Golden Age Passport, what the Senior Pass was called back in the dinosaur era. For $10 I had lowered my campground fees for life by half. At least at the forest service, BLM, Corps of Engineers (COE),  and National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds, which accounted for more than 90% of the fees I paid for camping. Whoopee!

Then these government agencies discovered that they could avoid doing the work of collecting fees, cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash, and answering questions from the hoi polloi. Hire outside contractors to manage the campgrounds. But, of course, private contractors had to make a profit, so they raised the campground fees. Who knows what the contractors promised the FS and the other government agencies, but it certainly didn’t turn out to be better services–or any benefit–for campers.

So as prices went up, so did demands from the concessionaires, including many concessionaires refusing (agreed to by the various agencies, such as the NPS and COE) to accept the Senior (Golden Age) passes, culminating in the lost fight with the FS to have the 50% fee discount removed. But it won’t end there. In last week’s blog, Forest Service leaves 50% camping discount structure intact, many of you weighed in with your opinions, some commenting that maybe seniors shouldn’t even be getting a discount.

But maybe there is another solution, so I throw this out for discussion.

First, why do we need to bring in for-profit corporations? All that does is raise camping fees so that the concessionaire owners and their stock holders can put your money in their pockets. And you can bet that, if they can’t drop the discount, they will be lobbying to raise the fees. Not only that, but there is a law that stipulates that they cannot accept volunteer labor, they must pay workers and hosts, which raises their overheads.

So . . . what about returning the campgrounds to the FS on these terms:

  • All campgrounds will be operated by volunteers who will receive a free campsite with hook-ups for 20 hours of duty a week.
  • Two or three sets of volunteer hosts per campground, which costs the FS essentially nothing, would manage each campground seven days a week, and be responsible for all but heavy maintenance.
  • All campground fees would go to a separate operational fund that would pay for campground expenses, like maintenance, repairs, building restrooms and signs,  road repair, upgrades, etc. rather than be given to the General Fund.
  • Campground operation and cleanliness would be rated by a FS inspector (paid out of the campground fees) and the hosts of those achieving the highest ratings would receive a seasonal bonus, also paid out of the campground fees.

Hosts would not be hard to find, since most of us would appreciate the absence of camping fees and would enjoy having something constructive to do,  the challenge of improving the campground, life in a forest, talking with campers, and taking charge.

I’m sure someone will find something wrong with that idea, but that’s what this conversation is for. Think about it. What are our thoughts?

But then, there is always the alternative of boondocking, which you can do for free anywhere in the national forests outside of the campgrounds (at least for now). For more on boondocking check out my eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands

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  1. Rick Finneran

    THe problem now, and it is prevalent in politics throughout our
    society is that this is a way to reward political friends. Give them
    a way to make a profit for their political support.
    I think your idea has potential, just have to get over the above

  2. Nancy Wolfe

    I think this is a great idea, we need as a nation to get back to doing things our selves and stop relying on the goverment to fix things, sorry but the goverment was never great at fixing anything in the business area. As far as the senior citizens dicounts go I say they deserve it, we the younger generations need to stop and think these are our parents and grandparents by staying active (camping does this) they stay healthier and younger at heart. We should help them to enjoy there older years they’re not another disposable item in our lives. Most of our seniors would probably be happy to work for free camping, (I know I would) and the knowledge that only a life time can bring is also included in this price.

  3. R W Bennett

    People born back in 30’s and 40’s or even older have most likely had hard times
    and very hard working people who’s earning were very low for most. I think it would be great let them run these park for free parking.. Today senior today are being put
    on the back burner, they are the back bone of this great country.

    RW Bennett

  4. Jerry James

    Great Idea Bob Difley. I would be happy to join the senior forces. I am now retired and have a nice motorhome and wonder what I am going to do with it as the prices have gone up so high. I want to be busy somewhere and after retiring from the fire and law enforcement service, I think it would be great to put in the summer in a campground doing maintainence. Please send me information as it develops and count me in. JJ

  5. I’ve always had a problem with the senior discounts, but being nowhere senior age, perhaps I don’t understand. I’ve always held the stereo-type that since seniors are retired, they’re pretty setup for the rest of their lives, and are no longer in need of a discount. It never made sense to me, that someone younger, who is often struggling to make ends meet, dosen’t get a discount.

    I like your idea of volunteers, and have thought along those same lines for years. As these are “public” lands, these lands, theoretically, are OURS to manage. We can easily replave the forest service and other wasteful agencies and take care of these lands ourselves. There is indeed, a critical mass of people now, that could easily do the job. Besides, I can’t tell you how many government workers in the parks, who don’t like their jobs, and would rather not be there anyways.

    I’m all for a universal pass, whereby anyone of ANY age can buy, and get a pass to camp in forest service and other national campgrounds, similar to what they have in New Mexico, except, nationwide. As part of that pass, we could volunteer part of our time into work maintaining the campgrounds, coordinated on the internet. Obviously anyone buying a pass like this, would want to be there and values the camping experience.

    Yes, as many have said, there are alot of out of control people that use the public lands, that have no respect for them whatsoever, but that is the fault of America in general, who create conditions, that PRODUCE, human beings like that. Noone starts out inherently bad. Bad food, unhealthy environment and surroundings, absent parenting, conditions that enslave one to where they feel the need to explosively escape, is more to blame, if one needs to blame. If we created a more humane “civilization”, these “bad” people, would disappear from the landscape.

    It is the terrain, that is in question, and for that, WE are ALL responsible.

  6. ray trudeau

    i don’t think the senior disc’t is necessary, if everyone was paying a reasonable price, there would be enough money to insure the future of the parks. the parks should remain a governmental responsibility for maintenance etc. those parks should not be money makers but need to be self sufficient. thus different prices from one park to another.

  7. ray trudeau

    i don’t think the senior disc’t is necessary, if everyone was paying a reasonable price, there would be enough money to insure the future of the parks. the parks should remain a governmental responsibility for maintenance etc. those parks should not be money makers but need to be self sufficient. thus different prices from one park to another.

  8. Richard Moffitt

    sounds like a good idea, I think the senior discount was a thank you to seniors who paid there tax’s all there working lives to support all those public lands and I think it’s a good idea.

  9. Ron Topp

    Am I just older then most of you guys or am I the only one who remmembers when there was NO FEES at Fed. campgrounds?? –granted there was only a place to camp–and maybe water –and outhouses–but most people cleaned up after themselves etc. –now if you wanted more you could stay at a motel/hotel –most had a tent –

  10. Great ideal there is a campground here in Tn. that does this and it works great.
    Clifford Miles

  11. Ken Morton

    your plan is excellent and has merit!!!!!!
    the only problem is the people that have the means to establish and maintane the plan are the people in washington who don’t have enough common sence to allow this to take place. I don’t see our nation changeing in this regard at least not in my life time.

  12. I’m all for it. My parents retired and went full time in 1995. I was very envious. They got and deserved the Golden Age pass port. They also belong to Coast to Coast which at the time cost after membership, 1.00 per night to camp.(used to be a good deal).They traveled all over the US and loved it. They both are patriotic law abiding, tax paying, hard working Americans. This land we are talking about already belongs to us! Yes there is maintenance to provide but I think that could be handled between volunteers and persons paid out of just the waste from gov’t spending. I am 59 and for years have looked forward to doing what my parents did. I would love to camp at 50% discount, no entry fee, host a place for a free site, and would very much enjoy volunteering to work in any of our Parks.

  13. Geoffrey Pruett

    Many of these campgrounds exist because of volunteers, now we are not allowed to do more than pick up after the lazy who preceeded us.
    The majority of the church and scouting grounds would have become weed patches long ago if not for retiree help.
    No longer working full time for wages does not erase a life time of skills from maintaining our own homes and business locations.
    When the decision to use contractors to run campground was made the long time operators skills went out the window along with their jobs, the results can be observed thru most of the Pacific Northwest grounds we have been to , and they are not pretty.

    Geoffrey Pruett

  14. Sucie

    It’s too bad that Arizona could not figure this out to keep their state parks open.
    Seems to me that with so many “Seniors” in the area that there would be plenty of people willing to volunteer their services to help beauty stay in place instead of closing.

  15. Jerry

    Sounds like a very good “Logical” idea. Problem is nobody in big government ever accepted or entertained a simple solution.

  16. Tom Gardner

    We need to continue the 50% discount for seniors, but under the current system fee increases are inevitable. We can send e-mails to the Park and Forest Services with our ideas on how to reduce costs and increase volunteerism. I would like to see editorials in RV magazines concerning this subject. The more people that get involved the better our chances to improve the parks and keep costs down.

    You can contact the US Department of Interior at [email protected]. The Forest Service web page can be accesed at

  17. hoppe

    I am here in Colorado and the Concessionaires are rampant on the NFs here. They put up signs for a mile or sometimes 2 NO CAMPING, to force people to use the campgrounds. Does anyone remember when, the FS didn’t charge if there wasn’t water in the campground? I do, and I’m only 56. Here in Colo I’ve run into campgrounds that are posted at $12-18 with NO services, not even trash removal. Signs say, Pack your Trash. The host just show up to collect the monies from the post, and maybe police the area once in a while. In some areas that have small remote campgrounds they may host 2 or 3 CGs.

    The Sate campgrounds here in Colo are hosted by Volunteers that get their site for free. I Don’t know how many hours are required to be a host but there never seems to be a shortage.

    If you are reading this you most certainly have an email service. If you want to continue to enjoy OUR public lands, contact your elected officials.

    It’s Easy: google ‘My Elected Officials’, start at Reps, go to Senators, and don’t forget the Pres while you are at it. We of the Boomer Generation are a force not to be ignored. Make sure to mention in your closing “I VOTE”. Write your comments in a Doc that you can cut and paste, it’s way faster.

    Do it now!

  18. Dave

    Sarah makes a very good point and one that must be resolved for a volunteer program to be effective. If volunteers run the show, who has legal authority to deal with disruptors? How quickly can legal authorities get to the location? On top of that, the rules and regs that the government can put together are mind-bending because they’re constantly playing the Cover Your A** game. In order to make this work, the government agencies need to do more than talk amongst themselves. They need to involve the camping community as equal partners to come up with the rules. As a concept, however, this is anexcellent idea… except it violates the “Logical and Rational” test. If it’s logical or rational, our government won’t do it.

  19. Dan

    How we all seem to forget so easy. This is the point. Most of this land of which I know for sure COE got was For Hydro Power Production and Lots of it. Either Sell or they will condem and take. (lots of Peoples farms and homes) for a long time now,in return they agreeded to make the parks and campground boat ramps and etc (FREE) to and for are children and grand children to come. My father heard that speech when they took his farm for 30 cents on the dollar.They in return sell the power for lots and lots and lots of Dollars. Do you think they can’t sell that power anymore for money and it has no value? Simpley put in one word (GREED) just like any other agreement before, ask an Indian about any broken aggrement the government made with them. This is trickledown government again, turning a profit off of us. And most people don’t have a clue anymore. They have figured out they can make a buck or two at our expense and know one will know or care. And frankly because of all our complacentcy they can. Boy do I feel better.

  20. William Weeks

    This is a great idea with only one exception. Everyone should pay some sort of fee for all park use, wether you dry camp or use the camp grounds. Yes the host should not have to pay and receive their site free as described. As soon as I reach that age I would even volunteer to be a host if it works out that way. I can’t wait to get my discount pass no matter how much the discount is. That’s what wrong with this country now, we worry too much about hurting others feelings and have gotten away from our core. I say hold Morning and Evening Colors.

  21. Joyce Goodrich

    Sounds like a better way to go. I will never forget my experience at the Grand Canyon 40 years ago. For $5.00 I received three pieces of fire wood from the
    Fred Harvey “slot machine.” I was so mad at this rip off I drove a number of miles to the park head quarters and got my money back. As I recall the staff person said they had no control over the charge. I wonder what they charge in 2010….

  22. C France

    We have volunteered as hosts in NF and NP and preserves for the last 7 years. By far we like the forestry sites. Have worked with wonderful people met great campers with all kinds of backgrounds. We do not stay commercial often and try to avoid all concessioners. On the whole we feel they are changing the dynamics of our wild places.Such a wonderful way to see and get to know new areas and be part of new communities. Try it!

  23. Barry N. Schmidt, D.D.S. (ret.)

    Public lands are supposedly owned by the public (us). Even so, there is no obligation for the feds to let seniors use it for free or at a discount just because we are seniors (me, at least). I feel it is a courtesy and a privilege, but not a right.

  24. HJ Lamb

    I’m for it! Where do I sign up?

  25. Michael Rawson

    This is a great idea that should be able to work very well. the FL state parks that we have stayed at are operated by a combination of state employees and volunteers and it has been a very satisfying experience. The tradition of the concessionaires at National Parks goes back quite a ways to the days of the Fred Harvey Inns at places like the Grand Canyon so there is an entrenched relationship that will probably be very difficult to change. Presumably if such a change of direction were to take place, it could not be effected until the current leases or agreements expire. And at that point the lawsuits would begin. Maybe by the time our childrens’ children get their Golden Age Passport it could be resolved. In the meantime as noted in the comments above, there are plenty of willing able and dedicated potential volunteers who are unable to be fully utilized to help keep our parks as an enjoyable camping experience.

  26. Thomas Becher

    Just stayed at Land between the Lakes KY. The volunteer gets campsite with sewer,water and electric and $20 a day. (tax free) hardly big wages. Get rid of all those concessioners. All they do is add to the cost of visiting a park. I liked the fact that it only cost me $18 for two nights with electric. Sorry, no water or dump at Energy campground. It reminds me of last year at Niagra Falls when I wanted a hot dog and was told that you have to get fries also.”I’m sorry, we can;t give you just a hot dog, you have to get fries. My reply, yeh real sorry General Growth won’t get out of bankrupcy with out my fries. When they come in prices go up and the people working there get min. wages.

  27. I am fairly new to RVing but have stayed in a few government parks such as the Corps of Engineers. They were run by volunteers and durring the off season the volunteers outnumbered the campers. This system worked durring all seasons and did not cost the Corps except for the Electricity and Water the volunteers used. It seemed to be a great idea and I put it in the back of my mind to try it myself someday.

  28. Sarah

    I was the volunteer, Volunteer Host coordinator for the F.S. at the Oregon dunes. This is somewhat like the program that already exists. But the problems come from the campers being aggressive, filthy, and some things that you can’t even imagine. Good Hosts don’t stay when the F.S. can give them no backup. We had 4 deputies that covered a 60 mile stretch of the Oregon coast and 100 miles inland, plus when there were tree sitters or protesters at a goverment building they had guard duty. For holidays we would have more than 10, 000 people on the dunes and many had no concept of respect for others and their belongings. We always had some killed. And most of all you have to remember the F.S. or the agency you are volunteering with has goverment rules for what a volunteer can and can not do. Many things we think as logical have so many rules and regs. that it is hard to believe. The F.S. values their volunteers and trys hard to show them how much. There are so many places that would close without the volunteers that keep it open.

    I am all for volunteering and encourage anyone interested to contact the agency you want to work for and see what they have to offer.

    Thanks for letting me put in my 2 cents worth.


  29. Jean T.

    I think it is a great idea as well. The Florida state park that we camp host at will close the campground next year to put in mandated sewers. I tried to find a camp host position in the southwest next winter and have not yet been successful. More people want to host than positions are available for them.

    At our state park campground three, couples clean 60 sites and two showerhouses at 20 hours a week per couple for a free site. We love living in the park and doing something to help the park. It is win-win for everyone.

  30. Bob Kiefer

    I agree. With all the new fees and taxes levied by the govermnemt I believe volunteerism should be encouraged. Most RVers are responsible and I would rather trust the campgrounds to those who use them than outsiders and paid staff.

  31. Bob

    The host concessionaire at the at the Federal campground we stayed out volunteered that the company he worked for managed campgrounds all over the US and one of the perks was the ability to move around the country as a host/manager. He also said the company was privately owned by the brother of a former member of Congress. Helped me understand why they need to increase the rates to make more profit.

  32. Gary Altig

    Eliminate for profit concessionairs. Have the Seniors run the consessions.

  33. Larry C.

    Gtreat idea.

  34. Larry C.

    I think thats a great Idea. That would be to easy for the government.

  35. great idea and they would not have close parks. should work on state an federal parks

  36. This would be a great idea. But then the Washington thugs would lose another source of their stolen funds. They want it to stay in the general fund so they can get their hands on it.

  37. Larry

    The Federal government can not run itself so how can they run the parks the way they need to be. It is time for the people to take back what belong to them.

  38. David Broach

    It is a gread Idea, however I agree with Scott, make too much sense for the goverment to Do it.
    I am sure there are more than enough people available to man the positions. I have applied to about 15 parks and BLM for a camp ground host position. Unable to find a host position, but did find a volunteer position.
    Must be a lot of Volunteers willing to work

  39. Jim C

    It seems to me that by age 62, most people have supported the national park system thru their taxes for over 45 years and probably were not able to take the time to visit more than one or two parks for only a week or so at a time. I believe seniors have not only earned, but deserve the discount when their income is reduced, but now have the time to actually see and use their investment in the parks

  40. Bob, I think this is a great idea. This is the best way to preserve our Parks.

  41. catchesthewind

    Great idea. Lets put it in service.

  42. Gerald Strickland

    Why should public lands/parks be operated for a profit? I think the federal/state agencies should operate them as non-profit with fees going to maintain the parks and pay the employees. After all, our taxes paid for the land.

  43. Mikeh

    I have been kicking around that type of idea for the state parks in Ms., I my use some of your thoughts and run it by some of the park people. They have said they can not keep up things like they used to because of cost’s but this would eliminate most of that.

  44. Roald Dee Harback

    Sounds good to me also. My wife and I try to be a volemter host every year and enjoy doing it.

  45. Sounds like a great plan to me. Probably makes too much sense to be implemented by the Federal government though;)

  46. Richard M. Clark

    Great Ideas. Seniors should get all they can as much us being taken from us.

  47. Joe

    Whatever happens, I think it should be based on 2 principles.

    (1) Public lands belong to everyone, and everyone should have access. Campgrounds are a part of that access.

    (2) The maintenance and upkeep for the camping facilities on those public lands should be paid for be the people who camp there.

    I like Bob’s proposal, but can see at least one problem that have to be worked out. I’m not a fan of Reserve America, but you do need some kind of system in place and that would probably be outside the realm of what you can expect temporary volunteers to handle. I think we’ve all seen how hard some campers will work to game whatever reservation system is in place. That system might be run be the forest service, but it also might be better off in the hands of a concessionaire.

    Most of the Camp Hosts we’ve run into are wonderful people, and I would like to see more of them, not fewer, at public campgrounds. I’m sure there would be some headaches (hosts who leave in the middle of their commitment, hosts who can’t or won’t do the work, recruiting hosts to hot areas in the summer or cold in the winter, etc….), but I also think the current system could use some improvement.

  48. Don Hughes

    Great idea, the State Parks in Ohio use camp host and volunteers to clean up around the camp grounds and do other jobs. State seniors (Golden Buckeye) card holders get 10% discounts on weekends and 50% discount during the week.
    Camp host (volunteers) get free camp site.

  49. Robert Lyon

    Not a bad Idea. I remember doing some dry camping in the Sierra’s in the late 1980’s and 90’s where there was a camp host assigned to each camp ground. They would keep the grounds neat and tidy. Clean the rest rooms daily. And, the Forest Service made a daily run to pick up the fees deposited by the campers at the pay station. It was an honor system. Yes, I used my Golden pass to get a discount. It seems to me if a franchisee keeps raising his rates people will stop using the facility.

  50. Robert Lyon

    Not a bad Idea. I remember doing some dry camping in the Sierra’s in the late 1980’s and 90’s where there was a camp host assigned to each camp ground. They would keep the grounds neat and tidy. Clean the rest rooms daily. And, the Forest Service made a daily run to pick up the fees deposited by the campers at the pay station. It was an honor system. Yes, I used my Golden pass to get a discount. It seems to me if a franchisee keeps raising his rates people will stop using the facility.