Colorado’s system for managing campsite reservations at state parks falls short on two key measures: encouraging public use and maximizing state revenue, according to an audit report released Monday. The problems potentially cost Colorado Parks and Wildlife up to $2.8 million in 2021.
In its report, the state auditor’s office found that more than a third of the state’s 4,200 campsites were closed for at least one night from Jan. 1 through Sept. 7. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which manages the reservation system, did not have data that auditors could use to verify whether the closures were justified.
As part of its investigation, the state auditor’s office sent a survey to CPW park managers. Out of the 29 who responded, 11 park managers indicated a risk “that closed campsites are misused to benefit family and/or friends of park staff.”
During a Monday hearing on the audit findings, Legislative Audit Committee Chair Sen. Jim Smallwood also raised concerns about the potential for parks staff to commit fraud by closing campsites.
“I want to make sure that we don’t open up a situation where unscrupulous folks have a way of turning this into a business for themselves,” said Smallwood, a Parker Republican. He noted that under the current system, a parks worker could close a site and then say “‘If you,’ hypothetically, ‘give me x amount of money in cash, then this can magically reopen.'”
In a written statement provided to Newsline, CPW Acting Director Heather Dugan said the agency appreciated the auditors’ insight and was “immediately working” to implement recommended changes.
“The audit identified that CPW needs better processes and procedures to document and approve campsite closures for a clearly defined reason,” Dugan said. CPW will continue to close campsites during emergency situations such as wildfires, when sites are covered by snow or otherwise unusable, and for volunteer camp hosts and trail crews, she added, calling such closures “important management tools.”
From Jan. 1 through Sept. 7, auditors also found about 137,000 reserved nights where CPW charged a total of nearly $837,000 less than the standard nightly fees. Regional managers did not document how lowering the fees would encourage occupancy and increase campground use, even though CPW policies require such documentation.
Auditors also discovered issues with documentation of refunds. According to the report, CPW refunded 268 reservations for reasons that “did not qualify for a refund” under CPW policy. The refunds totaled about $12,500. For another 853 refunded reservations, totaling more than $21,100, auditors could not determine whether the amount refunded was appropriate because staff didn’t document the refunds properly.
The audit determined that those campsite reservation issues resulted in CPW collecting up to $2.8 million less than it could have in 2021. That would amount to approximately 19% of the $14.7 million the agency collected in 2021 from people who reserved campsites.
CPW operates more than 4,200 campsites in 42 state parks. In total, people made more than 209,000 nightly reservations to camp at Colorado state parks last year, according to the audit report.
Per the audit report, CPW agreed with recommendations from the auditor’s office to: clarify appropriate reasons for closing campsites; require park supervisors to approve site closures; document rationale for reducing fees; enforce policies for no-shows; monitor closures, discounts and refunds; and require training for park managers and staff on how to use the online reservation system.
Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said CPW’s goal shouldn’t be purely to maximize revenue.
“I hope that the audit recommendations don’t change it from what seems to be a policy of ensuring folks are enjoying the great outdoors into more of a bureaucratic, mean-spirited, ‘We’re trying to make as much money as we can from the land that belongs to the people of Colorado,'” Bridges said.