Forest Service leaves 50% camping discount stucture intact

author image

March 20, 2010

wenatchee_nf2_waWherever you look, which ever way you turn, somebody or some agency is slyly slipping their hand into your pocket to alleviate  their looming deficits. The USDA Forest Service’s (FS) attempt to remove or greatly reduce discounts provided to holders of the Senior Pass, which gave retirees a 50% discount on camping fees in  National Forest campgrounds, including those operated by concessionaires, would have raised money, but cost seniors a bundle.

Concessionaires, for obvious reasons, were solidly behind the move, lobbying for a 5 to 10% discount instead. This would bring in more money to the FS as well as the contractors, a Win-Win deal–except to seniors.

In a rare push of solidarity, seniors and about-to-be seniors flooded the FS offices with more than 4,000 emails and letters urging the FS to reconsider. And it worked. On Wednesday, FS Chief Tom Tidwell announced that he would not change the fee structure, a move not embraced by the concessionaires that operate the campgrounds.

Unfortunately, other government agencies have started backing off the 50% discounts. The Army Corps of Engineers does not recognize the discount, and some national parks have stopped offering the discount. Only the FS still universally recognizes the discount.

However, boondocking on public land not in a designated campground, including the FS and BLM, is still free unless you stay in one of the BLM’s LTVA designated camping areas (though the rates are still cheap). You can legally camp anywhere in the national forests and on BLM land, unless specifically prohibited as indicated by signs or fences, for a maximum of 14 days out of every 28 days, then you must move at least 25 miles away.

As the list of inexpensive camping options continues to dwindle, the move by the forest service was hailed by seniors. But, it would be a good idea to hone your boondocking skills, permitting you to camp–and save money–by camping on public lands where it is still free, as well as take advantage to the 50% discount on designated campgrounds–as long as it lasts before the next assault on the fee structure. What do you think? Do  seniors deserve these camping discounts, or should they pay the same as everybody else?  Should camping fees be raised to help over come the operating deficits of the Forest Service?

For more on boondocking on public lands, check out my eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands.

Leave a Reply


  1. Donnie Anderson

    I’m have not made it to the senior age yet (short by 3 years) however, I’am disabled. My wife and I like those who have made it to those years are struggling to camp on a very fixed income. We have paid our taxes to support these lands and YES we deserive these discounts. The Concessionaires new about these discounts when the leased these campgrounds and they are using this to attempt to pad their pockets.

  2. kuties4

    well said, hubby and I are full time rvers. we travel 3 dfferent states through out the year. never asked for a discount and never received any. we are not rich and like many it’s the only home we can aford. so give the discounts. those who need it appreciate it.

  3. msgsro

    Seniors deserve any break they can get. So do the handicapped, disabled veterans, Puple Heart recipients, Police, Fire and Rescue or anyone else that has given back to thier country and community. If you are against discounts and are a Good Sam member, next time you camp, tell the owner ” I’m a Good Sam member, but I don’t want the discount. I’d rather pay full price. I’m sure you’ll make him very happy. Discounts are offered, not demanded . Take what you can get. And while your at it, thank those that qualify, they’ve earned it.

  4. Great comments and participation. I think I will take it a step further, and write more about FS camping on my Saturday blog.

  5. Gary

    Hey Joe,
    I doubt that you will ever see a retiree that will trash a camp. I have seen the results of the young folks that destroy restrooms, leave beer cans, break up and burn camp tables. Being a senior myself, I have paid for the repairs of that my entire life. When I walk my dog at a state or fed park, I take a garbage sack so I cam pick up trash that someone has left behind. Getting a senior discount for many of us is an extreme honor. I have worked hard all my life, I have paid taxes all my life, and now at age 67 with the best camping gear I could ever afford, I get a little break in a small camping fee. I pray that you feel the same way as I do when you get to be my age. I want to enjoy every state and federal campground in this wonderful country of ours. I am not sure that on a fixed income I can do that in my lifetime. The small discount we get may very well help me spend my money in your community, help me keep the areas that I visit cleaner than I found them, and enjoy the seniors in these great parks of ours that I meet along the way. Get over it… Your time as a senior will be much better.

  6. We worked, scrimped, and saved for our rig…..We paid our taxes both state and Federal and waited for the day…….Now it is here and I want what I worked for a decent retirement; We are entitled to our Senior Pass and we want it……….Anyone who has more money than they need can feel free to make a donation………


  7. Thomas Becher

    Although I like a discount as much as the next guy, I think we must pay for what we recieve. Too many parks are being closed for lack of funds. Perhaps we should get a 15%. Those of us running around in $50-100K rigs get the 50% off so we can make the payments. KIDDING. Maybe it’s where I live or the people I see, but we can afford what we use. I don’t see many poor seniors camping.

  8. Ed

    Seniors can get their pass at 62. a few of you think we are taking away much and giving little in return. Our goverment already cut our cost of living increase for the next two years while at the same time giving themselves a nice rase in pay. Many seniors have worked all of our lives only to find the savings they thought they were going to live off is gone becaus of the way the stock market treated them. then our goverment gave the heads of these compainies bonuses for a job well done. How about the companies that take our landscape and remove minnerals and leave a pile of dust (crushed rock) sometimes hundreds of feet deep. They pay nothing to our goverment and all the gold, silver,copper, or anything else they want from the holes they dig. Then walk away saying we don’t have the money to clean it up. I enjoy staying in these parks and I don’t think it is to much to ask of our Goverment to give me and other seniors a break. When We go for a walk around the campground if we see anything on the ground we stop and pick it up and dispose of it. If more people did like most seniors maybe our states would not be closing the state parks and rest areas.

  9. terryd

    When Forest Service Campground services are bid out to private companies, they have the option to decide whether or not they can do the job specified or not for the amount they will receive. In my experience, some of them do outstanding jobs, and some do not, just like everywhere else in business. They undertook the bids, knowing that seniors would be getting the discount. If that wasn’t going to work for them, they needn’t have applied for the opportunity to take on the campground services for the area they bid for! In some areas, there are more campground hosts than campers sometimes, when we visit. Some times, there are no hosts at all and a paypost is sufficient and the campground is clean and well-maintained. Sometimes, the place is full of campers and and hostworkers from private companies, and service seems to be limited to collecting fees and telling you there can not be toilet paper brought more than once a day even if it is all gone…wait until tomorrow; it is a RULE. No matter how busy that campground is! Don’t look for uniformity of service. They are not going to be able to guarantee income to the service providers. Any time a service is bid out, they will be looking for ways to make more $$$ at it, and raising user fees is going to be the main way, of course. Don’t look for them to drop the push to raise fees for everyone, including seniors. And I can think of MANY seniors, my parents included, nearing 90, who are still camping in their old camper, who really cannot afford higher fees. On the other hand, most of the FS campgrounds do not have dump stations or flush toilets, so its not like they are in competition with any other providers…not even close.

  10. Fred Darrow

    Another thought, in my some what limited experience, I have found the many of thje ‘older’ campers tend to be more facility friendly. That is, they tend to take more interest in what is around them and are tend to be more beneficial users. Taking the time to fix something or at least making problems known to those who should care.

    Many of my age group try to really follow the old guide of leaving any area they use or visit Better Than They Found IT!

    It all that is true than offering use ole folks a good discount may actually make good business sense.

  11. Kellie Pierce

    Okay, just want to say that I agree with many that these lands belong to all of us and we should decide who pays what.. not the concessionaires. i do want to use this opportunity in my campaign to eliminate the phrase “fixed income” to refer to retired folks. I worked for many years and my income was fixed – no opportunity for OT or any kind of extra and I believe many working people are the same. Seniors have the same opportunity as anyon else to get an extra job or whatever to increase their income. Also, it is my belief that most seniors who are living on social security only are NOT the ones RVings in NFS parks or anywhere else.

  12. Seniors deserve a break. We live on social security alone and have drastically changed our lifestyle to fit our income. Most seniors are on a fixed income, that is minimal to those still in the workforce. It is seniors that are more likely to volunteer to help out in the parks. It is the seniors that are more likely to leave a site better than when they arrived.

  13. Joe

    Here is an article about the proposed change, before it was reversed.

    It seems that a major consideration was the fact that Forest Service campgrounds were severely undercutting rates at private campgrounds. Private campgrounds are not big corporations, the are typically hard working decent folks, just trying to make ends meet.

    How would you feel if Taxpayers were subsidizing something that was competing with your small business. Is that fair?

    How about the middle of the road proposal (mentioned in the article) that allows the discount during slow times (when campsites would sit open) but not during peak season. I would guess that most retired Seniors don’t want to be camping during holiday weekends anyway.

    Keep in mind, there are still lots of free and very cheap camping opportunities on public land for Seniors (or anyone else) who isn’t interested in paying the going rate.

  14. Pat

    Hello/Bonjour All!

    Thanks for the information Bob and for raising our awareness.

    Some seniors are wealthy and some are not. I often find that those who have less money aren’t the ones taking advantage of the discounts as they don’t do a lot of golfing, traveling, eating out or shopping for luxuries. I like the suggestion that those who can afford to do so, no matter what their age, pay the full fee and leave the discount in place for those who need to use it, again, no matter what their age. There are some good hard working everyday folk who also need a little help, especially in today’s economy.

    But the real issue isn’t just about the money. Money isn’t always the answer. Remember folks, these are OUR parks because WE are the government and so WE are responsible for OUR community, county, state/provincial, and national parks and recreation areas. WE should decide these things along with our government employees. WE can help keep them open and save tax dollars by volunteering to be campground hosts, doing light maintenance, taking a few extra minutes to clean up after the slobs who left the sink a mess or beer cans in their camp site and sharing an encouraging word with our employees (WE pay their salaries, remember): all those rangers and other park personnel. WE need to call our politicians and let them know WE want our parks to stay open. WE need to contact our state/provincial DNRs or local parks people and ask what can WE do to help? WE need to get the ‘them’ and ‘they’ out of our vocabulary and replace them with the much more responsible WE! End of homily!

    As Red Green reminds us, “we’re all in this together!”

    Happy Spring!

  15. Dave

    As a senior, I don’t think I am “owed” anything by anybody when it comes to discounts. At the same time, I don’t think I need to be screwed over by publicy traded corporations. The concessionaires in many of these NFS campgrounds aren’t Sally and Joe Smith running their own mini-business taking care of a government campground, they’re profit making companies set up to generate money for their stockholders. They knew the rules when they went for the concession license and now they wanted to change them to their benefit… not the campground, not the public, not the campers… their benefit. There was a reason the government agencies decided to grant discounts to seniors, vets and disabled persons… allowing them ease of access both physically and financially. The easiest solution is simply jack up the rates a couple of bucks and maintain the discounts as the national forest service has done.

  16. Granny

    So, let’s give Joe a break. What is so magical about an age that it entitles one to special consideration? There are many young people who have done heroic acts, who serve and served this country, who sacrifice untold riches for the betterment of mankind. I am a senior (according to the NPS – 62 yrs) and I do not ask for special treatment; yet, if given a discount, I don’t offer it back. Is that hypocrisy? I guess I don’t feel I am “entitled” to a discount, but it is nice to get a little recognition that maybe, just maybe, I’ve done something good with my life. Maybe we all need score cards that when entered into a scanner determines the amount of discount or premium charge one deserves based on prior acts.

  17. Drew

    Does the F.S. recognize Seniors as 55 or 65?

  18. Grampa Jim

    Joe,,,,My wife and I recently retired and live on our SS checks. It’s not easy to make ends meet at times. Thank God we’re healthy and thank God for opportunities to save money in our retirement years with things like the America the Beautiful Pass.
    I hope you can understand this thing about seniors appreciating things like this when you become a senior,,,,and I hope you’re in good health when you get there.

  19. Phil Mitchell

    We own the USA, not the government nor concessioners. I have seen the Concessioners ruin for government camping retreats in SEQUIOA.

    We spend billions on FANCY FACILITIES in IRAQ, swimming pools, tennis courts,ect.

  20. Joe

    I appreciate the sentiments about a life of hard work, and the need for a younger generation to pay something back in appreciation. I do.

    Really though, we’re talking about at 50% discount on campsites that cost $15-$20 per night.

    Are there that many Seniors who can afford to buy and RV, keep it insured, keep up with tires and fuel, and still can’t scrape up $8-$10 extra for a campsite?

    Guess who will be first in line to complain when no new campgrounds are built, when bathrooms and dump stations are in disrepair, and when services like trash collection and fire pit cleaning occur less frequently?

    My guess…people who pay the 50% off price will complain the loudest.

  21. Carson

    Joe, you have to have parents are you would not be here. Unless money is no option for them or you then you would not be making a comment such as you did seniors deserve a break. They give their lives raising kids and some even Grandkids, working hard, paying taxes the list goes on and on and now living on a fixed income. It is not easy today and some have to get jobs just to make ends meet. Seniors have reached the pinnacle of life that they deserve a well given break my wife and I have not reached that pennacle yet however, it is coming fast. I would love to know that when I retire I can at least enjoy a simple pleasure of life with a little break. My parents and my wife’s parents deserved a little less pressure during their golden years by having discounts etc. so I pray it can continue when we reach that age as well. Don’t begrude a little extra for the ones that have paved the way for us to reach the Golden Years.

  22. Dave

    I applaud you’all for standing up for seniors.

    I would venture a pretty sure guess that all of us seniors have paid our dues with taxes and now deserve a break on some things especially something that the government owns like the parks since I think we actually paid for them with our taxes.

    Actually isn’t our govenment owned by “we the people” so we own the land and parks that they so flagrantly forget.

  23. Carl Stark

    I guess it is a sign of the times. As a senior citizen who enjoys using his Senior Pass, I remember how we were taught to show respect for our elders/seniors. They served our country, worked hard all their lives, and are living on a fixed income. Why begrudge a show of respect for those who took care of us. Just a thought. Carl.

  24. Russ

    Do you suppose they ever thought of wage and benefit cuts for all employees? That is what private industry is doing in times such as this. It seems that only government agencies continue to give wage increases and great benefits, while the rest of us tighten the old budget. Maybe I need to jump on the bandwagon and get a job where the tax payers pay my salary and benefits!

  25. Larry

    If they cut the discount for seniors then it will be like the vet that went ot war and became total disable who like to camp, The Army Corps of Engineers has already took the discount away at all military bases (from 10.00 to 24.00) for one night. I think that The Army Corps of Engineers along with the gov does not care about the vets when they come home from putting their lifes on the line for the freedom this county has.

  26. Craig Benoit

    The Baby Boomers are coming.

    Raise the Social Security Retirement Age

    Allow companies to transition from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans. Cashing out the defined benefit plans at assumed interest rates that have not been met.

    Allow companies to terminate senior employees with out regard to performance through ‘position elimination’. A big benefit to the companies cost of benefits. Reducing the number of higher compensated employees, reducing company contribution to pension plans, reducing average vacation time due.

    Increase the age requirement or eliminate entirely Senior Discount Programs.

    And AARP has not fought as hard as they should on any of these issues

    What’s next?

  27. Niblick

    Joe, I guess I agree with you to an extent. Mr. Dilfey is typically a champion for liberal “necessities” of life as he sees it, such as unbounded support for so-called environmental issues related to his chosen life-style. I’d agree with him on this one, though for some pretty solid reasons.
    Seniors (we all are going to belong to this group eventually) have truly earned a discount on some things simply because they use up less of things (as a group) over a long period of time, and have paid more into some of them (through taxes and voluntarism) over a long period of time than some of the rest of the population.
    As you know, we seniors get discounts on barber services because we have less hair and we need to get groomed in shops less often. We get discounts on golf because we often will play during slack times, plus many of us generally have learned over the years to take care of the resource. We get discounts on movies because we go when working folks don’t, and we may not otherwise spend the money on them without the discount. We have early bird specials at some restaurants so as to fill up the low volume times when some of us like to go, but gobs of other people don’t. We get a senior citizen pass to many other places because it makes business sense to the purveyor to cater to specific habits of customers.
    But now I have to ask you; why does the SEIU (service employees int’l union, aka government workers, get a discount on paying health insurance that the rest of us have to pay in the current Federal Health Care bill? That union includes teachers, community organizers, post office workers, and other government service workers. They should pay the same as the rest of us, right?
    Now, the people of Florida, Montana, Louisiana should not get a better deal than the sadly-economically-challenged people of California, should they? Or the people of any other State. So Mr. Dilfey raises an important point…which group of Americans should get the economic breaks?

  28. Carl Jennings

    My wife and I work at a Army Corps of Engineer campground and we still honor the senior (Golden Age/Access and America the Beautiful) passes. I don’t know if just some Corps parks have stopped honoring them or we have not been told not to honor them.

  29. Al

    Well, Joe….you’re sounding an awful lot like our infamous liberals in congress – Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Al Franken and their ilk. We seniors are getting more than a little fed up with that kind of leadership – now to be required to cover gross federal budget mismanagement out of the pockets of American seniors is just grossly unjust. These seniors are the people who have paid their taxes, fought valiantly for their country in battle, and it’s time for a little payback. Even if that payback is denominatinally small, like a break in camping fees at Forest Service campgrounds. If you’d like me to elaborate on places our government could afford to ‘cut’ spending, let me know and I’ll send you a few dozen single-spaced pages. Messing with the quality of lifestyle of Seniors isn’t the place to go for ‘balance the budget’ dollars.

  30. Jim

    Given the money that was given away to the financial sector to save them and their executives and the amount of fraud and waste in government at all levels it is hard to complain about the piddling amount given to seniors in the form of this discount.

  31. Robert

    Most retired seniors have less available money than when working. Many businesses give Senior discount to help the elderly. I aplaud the Forest Service for their Sr. discounts and hope they will continue the program.

    Joe if you are a senior and don’t want the discount then don’t buy the pass. Perhaps you could donate extra money to the Forest Service to help seniors that are less fortunate than you.

  32. Teresa

    Our seniors deserve some breaks. They have paid their dues and since most are on fixed incomes, they should get a break on the fee they pay. I don’t mind paying more so they can pay less. I hope when I am a senior I will have that benefit. Our senior citizens should get some breaks.

  33. Joe

    What justification is there for Seniors not to pay their fair share at FS campgrounds?

    Even typical FS rates are typically well below the rates at other public campgrounds (State Parks, National Parks, etc…). Someone has to pay to keep up the facilities we all use and enjoy.

    As you point out, there are plenty of free or nearly free options for seniors who don’t want to need the facilities provided by the campgrounds.