The most attractive, best maintained and most popular campgrounds, picnic areas and boat launch areas along the Snake River were shuttered early this year because they are costly to maintain and there are fewer dollars available to run them.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineer's Walla Walla District say the recreation areas that have landscaping, mowed lawns with underground sprinklers and regular garbage pickups may be the most popular with the public, but they don't generate enough visits to offset the maintenance costs.
"Basically, Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., gives us a certain piece of the pie," said Bruce Henrickson, public affairs specialist for the Corps' Walla Walla District.
Corps officials in Eastern Washington say they had little choice but to close facilities that are too expensive.
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Corps' facilities that have lower operational costs and can show better cost-benefit ratios are more likely to avoid budget cuts, said Lonnie Mettler, natural resources manager for the Walla Walla District.
Nationwide, it's the campgrounds that can pack in the visitors that fare best.
Mettler said campgrounds near Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth are huge and can attract enough business to earn Corps' funding without suffering cuts.
"They can make a bigger bang for the buck because they have a lot more visitors," Mettler said.
"We've been using performance-based budgeting for quite a few years," Mettler said.
Every recreation area is stacked up against others, with more than 400 of them being ranked across the nation. How efficiently these sites are operated influences how much money they get, Mettler explained.
The only way to get more money is to have more visitations or reduce costs, he added.
That is a challenge for high-maintenance parks such as Hood, Charbonneau and Fishhook because they already are running near capacity during the summer, so cutting costs by reducing the length of the season is the alternative.
Mettler said the Corps staff in the Walla Walla District considered closures, reducing contracts and services, and how to reassign staff to find a savings.
Simply raising rates for camping won't fix the problem because the formula is based on the number of visits, Mettler said.
"We don't get to keep any money from the fees. It all goes to the U.S. Treasury," he said.
And reducing the rates to attract more visitors on weekdays, when there is more availability, creates a different problem because the Corps' sets rates to be fair in not undercutting rates of private campground operators.
The Corps knew the budget squeeze was coming when it got word of a $669,000 budget reduction for the Walla Walla District a year ago.
Mettler said having more volunteers is one way to get around the constraints.
Volunteers can mow grass and clean restrooms, eliminating the need to pay a contractor to do it, Mettler said.
Henrickson said contracting out operations of Corps' recreation areas to private operators helps solve budget problems, but there is a risk.
Such is the case at Lyons Ferry on the Snake River, Henrickson said.
"Outsourcing our campgrounds does solve our budget problem, but if the operation fails the Corps cannot take back a campground. ... We are constantly looking for a lessor (there)," Henrickson said.
The Lyons Ferry day use area remained open this year only because of volunteers' help, he added.
Kate Woods, spokeswoman for Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the cuts are regrettable, but unavoidable given the state of the nation's debt.
"Congressman Hastings has always supported efforts to expand public access to federal lands, and he shares concerns about the Corps of Engineers closing some recreation sites several weeks early this year. Unfortunately, bailout after bailout and irresponsible stimulus spending has helped create a record national debt," Woods said in a statement provided to the Herald.
Woods added: "It is the Corps, and not Congress, that decides how much of their budget is directed to the operation and maintenance of recreation sites versus the agency's other responsibilities."
The Corps' other priorities adds to the crisis for recreation areas.
"There are strong support groups for navigation, hydropower and flood control. Recreation doesn't have that kind of voice. The mountain bikers, boaters and campers haven't come together yet," Mettler said.
Woods noted that the Corps' investigations account, which pays for studies authorized by law on rivers and harbors, flood and storm protection, shore protection, was funded at $126.7 million in 2011 and $104 million in 2012.
The construction account, which pays for the Corps' construction projects (whether on the river or shoreline) received $1.61 billion last year and $1.56 billion in 2012, she told the Herald.
Overall, the budget for the Corps was reduced from about $4.85 billion in 2011 to $4.76 billion in 2012, Woods said.
"We may have to sharpen our pencil on a knife," said Mettler, adding that layoffs will be a last resort.