After 15 years of managing campgrounds in the Willamette National Forest, Chuck Shepard, owner of Hoodoo Ski Area, abruptly lost a large contract to manage 47 of them.
He said he doesn't know why Willamette officials chose Utah-based American Land & Leisure. "They didn't give us any explanation at all, except that it was a business decision, which usually means that it's not a business decision," Shepard said.
As a result of the government's decision, he said, he'll have to lay off key managers and lock up the Hoodoo lodge - a first since it was built in 2002. And he is shelving - probably forever - the plans to turn Hoodoo into a year-round destination, with attractions such as zip lines and an alpine slide, Shepard said.
"We're fairly certain we won't go into those other things," he said. "We no longer have a feeling of trust with the Willamette. For all we know, we'll do some investment, and the next year they'll say, no, we don't want you to do that. Any kind of trust we've had with them is totally out the window."
Stacey Forson, the Willamette's recreation staff officer, responded that "there's no indication that the district and the forest wouldn't work with (Shepard) on the proposals he wants to put out there, just like we would our other permittees, because he's operating under permit a great ski area."
Shepard bought the Hoodoo Ski Area in 1999. He has steadily improved the ski resort and built up Hoodoo's summer campground business to help even out fluctuations in the winter ski business.
More important than the extra revenue, he said, was the ability to keep key managers on the payroll all year.
Under separate contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, Hoodoo will continue to manage a total of 150 campgrounds in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, and in the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie, the Wenatchee and the Gifford Pinchot national forests in Washington.
But without the Willamette campground work near Hoodoo's home base, Shepard said, he must lay off three managers this summer, and he won't be adding the usual 30 summer hires. He said he'll also close the lodge when ski season winds down in April and won't reopen it until November when skiers return.
Many campers stopped by the lodge to use the bathrooms or showers, or to pick up a bag of ice or packet of matches at its store, he said.
Long term, the loss of the Willamette campground contract, which is for five years, with an option to renew for another five, threatens the viability of Hoodoo's winter ski operation, Shepard said. Hoodoo is one of the two ski areas closest to Eugene.
"We got into the (campground) business because it really helped the ski area, so this will hurt the ski area quite a bit," he said.
After Hoodoo's long track record with the Willamette and its willingness to help Willamette officials by managing remote campgrounds no other companies would bid on, Shepard said, he's still perplexed by their decision.
"We were really one of the best examples of how the concessionaire program could work," he said.
Managing both the campgrounds and ski areas helped keep costs low and make operations efficient, Shepard said.
"We had a lot of equipment from the ski area that helped with maintaining the campgrounds; we had employees we could take from the summer to the winter; campers seemed to be happy with us - 99 out of 100 of the comments we got were positive," he said.
"We had always gotten really good reports at the end of the year," Shepard said. "All we can figure out is somebody somewhere wanted a change."
"They had a new supervisor who I don't think understood or cared about the history Hoodoo had," he said. "Nor did they realize the damage they would do to Hoodoo (ski area)."
Hoodoo had a good performance record, Forson, the recreation officer, said. "They're a good business," she said.
But American Land & Leisure came out ahead in this bid process, Forson said.
Committee evaluated proposals
National forests select campground concessionaires based on a complex, competitive bidding process. Applicants are evaluated on five criteria: proposed operating plan, business plan, ability to complete projects beyond the routine annual maintenance, fees charged to the public, and fees paid to the government. In this bid, the government required a minimum fee of $45,778.
A five-person evaluation committee recommended American Land & Leisure based on the criteria, and Willamette National Forest supervisor Meg Mitchell agreed with the committee's recommendation, Forson said.
"We had good applications from both companies, so it really got down to how each of them addressed the criteria in the prospectus and how their experience reflected their ability to do what they said they would do in their proposal," Forson said. "Overall we felt American Land & Leisure would provide the best value to campground visitors and the general public."
Willamette National Forest officials provided no further explanation about how American Land & Leisure offered better value than Hoodoo.
The officials declined to respond to the Register-Guard's public records request for the government's evaluation of each concessionaire. They cited federal contracting regulations that prohibit the forest service from disclosing proprietary business information.
Steve Werner, vice president of the winning bidder American Land & Leisure, said he doesn't know what Hoodoo proposed, so he doesn't know why Willamette officials deemed his proposal a "better value."
The company, based in Orem, Utah, has been in the business since 1986 and manages more than 400 campgrounds nationwide.
"I know Chuck runs a real sharp, well-respected business," Werner said. "I've heard nothing but good stuff about Hoodoo."
"We were selected based on our experience and excellent customer service," Werner said. "We have good references throughout the country. We're in 11 states, manage 450 campgrounds with 11,000 camp sites, and employ about 700 people in the summer."
The company hired 35 employees for the Willamette campgrounds, including some former Hoodoo employees, Werner said.
These competitive bid decisions really are quite subjective, Werner said.
Some criteria are quantifiable, such as a company's financial strength or the fees they'll charge the public, he said.
"But if you look at those five categories, three out of five might be very subjective," Werner said. Some of that stuff is just going to be a judgment call."
He said he doesn't think campers will notice much of a difference between concessionaires.
In the first year of the contract, Willamette campground fees will stay about where they were under Hoodoo: $12 to $18, Werner said. In following years, the prices may be adjusted to reflect costs, he said.
"Hopefully we'll see consistent, or even improved service," Werner said.
Campers will still reserve sites using ReserveAmerica, the Forest Service contractor that built and maintains recreation.gov, an Internet portal for federal recreation opportunities.
High marks in Siuslaw
American Land & Leisure has seven phone lines "that are buzzing all the time" to answer customers' questions, Werner said.
American Land & Leisure received high marks from the Siuslaw National Forest, where it manages 12 campgrounds.
"They've done a very good job for us, and we're happy with them," Siuslaw spokeswoman Joni Quarnstrom said. "There are always little complaints that happen, but American Land & Leisure has always resolved them quickly."
Hoodoo has its supporters, as well.
Last year, Hoodoo beat out two competitors to manage 18 campgrounds in the Wenatchee National Forest.
"I think they did a bang-up job" in their first summer, said Jacqueline Beidl, the forest's archeologist and recreation program manager.
"We've received no negative comments from the camping public," she said. "We received several calls about how clean the facilities and how courteous the camp hosts were."
"My communications with Chuck have been great," Beidl said. "He's real forthright and easy to work with. He responds to issues quickly."
Hoodoo has done "an exceptional job" managing 85 campgrounds in the Deschutes National Forest, said Ronda Bishop, the forest's special use administrator for concessions and resorts. "I'm their permit administrator, and I couldn't ask for a better concessionaire company."
She said she was shocked to hear that Hoodoo wasn't chosen to manage the Willamette campgrounds "because their home base is there."
Bishop said she appreciates working with a local company, which enables more face-to-face time with the management.
"They're local," she said. "They know the area. They have their own equipment and most of (Hoodoo's) employees, the maintenance folks, they're from the area as well. It's just overall nice to have a company that's close to home."