Feature Article - November 2002
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Hard Corps Experience

Learning some lessons from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By Kelli Anderson


When asked why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now ranks as the nation's leading waterborne recreation provider, Erwin Topper, operations manager of Lake Sidney Lanier in Buford, Ga., didn't skip a beat: "It's water." He might as well have added, "Duh."

Moreover, when you consider the fact that the Corps oversees 12-million acres of American real estate containing 456 lakes in 43 states, you might think being Number One would be virtually impossible to miss. Fact is, the Corps has traditionally trailed behind the U.S. Forestry Service until last year when a change in how the numbers were calculated revealed that the Corps had actually taken the lead from the Forestry Service with almost 400 million visitors to its recreation areas annually.

Army rations
Fishing, hiking, boating and camping
are all still traditional favorites at Corps sites.

The Corps—with a 200-plus-year history and only in the last century a provider of outdoor recreation—is a mixed breed, being both military and civil. The civil works side deals mainly with water resource-based management activities like flood protection, hydropower, navigation and, of course, water recreation. Not only does it conduct environmental/social research to develop policies and recreation programs for its sites and for continuing its commitment to environmental stewardship, but it accomplishes these things while simultaneously complying with the gamut of ever changing state and federal laws and regulations. With all its years of experience, the Corps has learned what works and how to be successful. And they've learned to succeed even when funding sometimes amounts to a seemingly bread-and-water budget.

"Budget increases are not keeping pace with increasing costs," says George Tabb, acting chief natural resources branch of operations division in civil works at Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Despite moderate yearly increases in Corps funding, operating costs at Corps facilities have increased so quickly that funding is not keeping pace with need—this disparity has caused some facilities to experience an actual 30 percent to 40 percent decrease in their operations budgets. This has become a significant challenge when visits to Corps parks and sites are soaring, the infrastructure is aging, and trends continue to change.

But being Army also means being resourceful, and the Corps is most certainly that. Not being able to rely on bells and whistles, they excel at prioritizing, identifying the trends, and creatively adapting and partnering with those who share a mutual interest. It's a balancing act that tries to keep the public satisfied, government regulations met and the environment healthy. Not an easy job by anyone's measure.

Quality staffing is key
Volunteers at Lake Sidney Lanier in Buford, Ga.

When feast-to-famine budgets come and go so dramatically, the one stabilizing force is quality staffing.

"You always recruit and do everything you can to train the very best people," says Darrell E. Lewis, newly retired chief natural resources branch of operations division in civil works at Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. "You can have all the programs you want, but unless you have quality professionals at all levels—well, without the quality we have, we'd be in trouble. We do innovate. It's not even bad. It's just the way things are. It's a prioritization thing to do the best you have with what you have to work with."

It also means knowing how to network and build partnerships to pool resources, a key ingredient (other than water) to which the Corps attributes its success.

"At Lanier, we operate 48 parks while an additional 47 recreation areas are operated by our partners—so some counties, cities, the state and the private sector operate things," Topper says. "When it gets past the basic water rec activities, we encourage others to take over—and then have some of our fingers in their pie for a percentage of the pay to take back to the treasury." Other parties, such as a variety of sports and recreation associations, also share their time, finances and talents to their mutual benefit: the Boy Scouts of America, Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society (B.A.S.S.) or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to name a few.

Then there's that most-natural-and-revered-of-all-resources: the volunteer. After 9/11, it's not surprising to learn that the Corps experienced an increase in volunteer activity as people looked for ways to serve their community and their country. But the Corps has always relied and benefited from the generosity of the many good-at-heart.

"One of the best ways that we've been able to continue to offer excellent service and facilities to the public is to make use of volunteers to manage our parks," says Carolyn Bauer, outdoor recreation planner for the Nashville district of the Corps. "We are so grateful, and it goes across all age groups. People like to volunteer for all reasons: to work outdoors in beautiful settings, because they like helping people and the environment, and because they're really making a difference."

Added incentives are campsite discounts for those willing to play park host or an online and telephone service that helps people identify where they can serve in their area and what jobs might suit them best (see: www.orn.usace.army.mil/volunteer).

Activities Alert

Top 10 Recreation Activities in 1999

  1. rigorous walking
  2. driving for pleasure
  3. swimming
  4. picnicking
  5. fishing
  6. bicycling
  7. viewing wildlife
  8. camping
  9. visiting cultural sites
  10. hunting

Source: National Recreation and Park Association

Top 10 Recreational Activities by Adults
with Children at Home in 2001

  1. bicycling on the road
  2. horseback riding
  3. RV-ing
  4. campground camping
  5. swimming
  6. motorcycling/snowmobiling
  7. motor boating
  8. fishing
  9. hiking
  10. downhill skiing

Source: American Recreation Coalition annual survey


Paying attention to the trends and looking ahead to the future also has served the Corps well. The Corps relies not only on its own internal studies, but also on those provided by other sources such as the American Recreation Coalition's (ARC) annual survey. Two shifting trends commanding a lot of Corps attention are demographic—the growth in the aging population and the growth in ethnic diversity.

Seniors, more financially endowed than any generation before them, now arrive at campgrounds with campers that are larger, wider and more energy-demanding than their predecessors. And there are just simply more of them.

Over the past four years, RV ownership has increased 7.8 percent to one in every 12 families according to a University of Michigan study reported in a January 2002 Recreation Vehicle Industry Association news release. Traditional camp sites at most Corps campgrounds, originally built for tent camping and smaller recreation vehicles with 30-amp hookups, no longer meet the needs of the newer, souped-up RV models.

"The backbone of our camping is retirees that stay longer, have more disposable income and have bigger campers," Topper says. "What with push-outs and pull-outs to widen them, they also demand 50-amp hookups because they not only want one air-conditioner, they want two air-conditioners. We have to rewire our camp sites and widen them—that sort of thing."

To be fair, not all the larger and more powerful recreation vehicles belong to the retirement crowd.

"We're definitely seeing a trend toward larger toys where the RVs and boats are getting bigger and bigger," says Bill Duey, operations manager of Rathbun Lake, Iowa. "We're seeing what I call the 'peakers'—folks peaking in their careers in their 30s and 40s who are very successful. They're tending to have larger boats and RVs, although RVs do tend to go more with the retired community."

Senior interests, generally more passive than their younger counterparts, are also on the increase.

"We've seen a continual growth in such things as walking, wildlife and bird watching," says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), based in Washington, D.C.

Not surprisingly, more passive activity requires more quiet. Seniors often want campsites with tranquil environments or at least quiet hours that start earlier and last longer—sometimes a difficult balance to achieve when younger families have a different take on what constitutes enjoying the great outdoors.

For those seniors enjoying a simpler camping experience, having the bathrooms nearby is also a definite thumbs-up.

"The older population looks at things like bathrooms and 50-amp hookups and proximity to whatever feature may be at the park," Topper says. "And then as they come and expect their grandchildren to join them, they're looking for a different place—next to the beach. It varies."

Aging Baby Boomers, ever an anomaly, are also keeping trend-watchers on their toes.

"The Boomers tend to remain more diverse than previous generations," Crandall says. "They continue to do a lot the way they did before—backpacking, bicycling, that sort of thing."

Ethnic diversity on the rise

The shift from mostly Caucasian, old-time-park-regulars of Corps recreation facilities to an increasingly multiethnic ensemble who are less familiar with big water recreation—the majority being of Hispanic and Asian decent—provides yet another challenge to the Corps resources and resourcefulness. Although the great majority of outdoor recreation enthusiasts are Caucasian throughout the nation—83 percent, according to the ARC—certain parks, depending on their location, will still have a higher concentration of ethnic populations and be faced with a variety of corresponding challenges.

One of the greatest concerns and making the headlines regarding this population shift has been the increase in drowning-related deaths at Corps lakes. Newer immigrants who have not previously lived near deep water will tend to know little about essential water safety. Similarly, in the '50s when many Corps facilities were built, water-related deaths in the populations living in mountainous areas in the United States were also high because people were not experienced with deep water. In both cases, education is the solution, but in the present-day scenario, communication has become an additional problem.

żHabla Espańol?

Lean times in recent years for the Corps has resulted in staff reductions at a time when they not only need more staff than ever before, but need them to be more ethnically diverse to handle the myriad of language-related issues. Some staffs are tackling the challenge head-on by taking classes to learn the basics of Spanish and printing safety information in daily Spanish newspapers and literature to get the message out. However, a more far-reaching solution is the ongoing conversion of traditionally English signage to the universal sign symbols in an effort to communicate to all groups, Hispanic and otherwise. In some cases, the Corps circumvents communication all together by creating beaches to discourage people from swimming in more isolated areas. Whatever works to save lives.

Day use

"The Corps lakes are in suburban areas going through a lot of land use change," says Scott Jackson, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers research biologist based in Vicksburg, Miss. "Eighty percent of Corps lakes are located within 50 miles of major metropolitan areas."

And it is in these areas that day use of the parks is significantly increasing. In past years, people drove longer distances to get a taste of the great outdoors. The result was a commitment to overnight stays to create those sing-around-the-campfire moments.

But in the last six to seven years, as urban sprawl has narrowed the gap between country and city, day use of the parks for things like picnics, swimming, trail use and barbecuing has become a convenient and affordable attraction for urbanites. When getting to a park and back home again is so easy, camping overnight becomes less of a necessity.

However, it is not only the amount of day use that is forcing some Corps facilities to change their ways, but the kind of day use is that is changing as well.

"We're finding out with ethnic focus groups," Lewis says, "that we need to improve the way our facilities are laid out. Hispanic groups really prefer to cluster in groups of 30 to 60, and our facilities are set up with just one here and one there—more segmented. When we've had the chance, we go back in and adjust—it's been a positive thing."

Because single picnic sites were designed for the single family unit with one picnic table and parking for a single car, it stands to reason that the original designs no longer service the needs of such large groups attempting to use them. Of necessity, some Corps parks are beginning to enlarge their picnic sites to accommodate the larger groups that are using them and to convert lesser-used camping sites to day use.

Hispanic groups, for example, also tend to stay longer.

"Caucasian families usually come, have a picnic and go home," Topper says. "Their hourly visit would be two to three hours. The Hispanic family comes as early as we open the gate and stays until we lock up. They stay all day long, and the user group is bigger."

And what they do with their time is different. Soccer fields and volleyball courts tend to be more popular and therefore are in greater demand. Cost of contracted maintenance staff has also risen since prolonged day use requires more and late-evening cleanup.

Just the Stats

For Trivial-Pursuit diehards with a passion for the great outdoors, nothing could be better than the American Recreation Coalition's annual survey of current trends and statistics or its sound-bite Fun Facts listed on its Web site at www.funoutdoors.com. Survey findings from 2001 include some of the following:

Seventy percent of all American adults participate in outdoor recreation at least once monthly, while 26 percent do several times a week.

Participation frequency in 18- to 29-year-olds has dropped to nearly the same as 30- to 44-year-olds.

Decline in the frequency of participation was very strong among "Internet accessors," who reported a several-times weekly-participation-rate drop of 17 points vs. an 11-point drop for the overall public.

Households with children show a less pronounced drop.

Midwesterners and Southerners perceive more positive trends while substantially fewer Westerners (one in five) feel opportunities are getting better.

More golfers, wildlife viewers, RV-ers, boaters (motor, canoe/kayak) and hunters perceive improving opportunities.

One in five off-road bicyclists views the changes as negative, highest among all participants.

Compared to 1998, the public is now more unwilling (31 percent compared to 15 percent) to pay more for outdoor recreation fees.

Public willingness to pay at least $5 more for rec fees dropped from 56 percent to 48 percent.

The public now feels it's likely that new and higher fees have reached appropriate levels at many sites.

For more information about Corps lake recreation, benefits and economic impact data, see www.coreresults.us.

Crime, gangs and drugs

Another urban-related shift has been the increase in gang-related crimes and drug activity in Corps areas.

"Parks are one of the areas where it's considered a safe transaction point," Lewis says. "We work closely with the law enforcement to keep that from being a park use, but that is one problem. As the urban areas continue to reach out to the lakes, it's been a natural progression."

In addition to law enforcement, the Corps has enlisted the help of a seemingly benign, but very effective weapon—accountability. In one example, Lewis described how merely dressing a volunteer in khaki, giving him a clipboard and pen and having him wave patrons into the parking lot was enough to discourage the troublemakers from coming back. Within two months the area changed from a pretty rough area to a family favorite.

Corps recreation area at Lake Whitney and Dam
in Texas

The Corps also recognizes the importance of reaching out to the disabled and the young.

"Accessibility is one of the things we have made improvements on," Bauer says. "It's a variety of things, but one of the main things we look at is having a smooth surface and watching the slopes. It even makes it nice for people that have a child in a stroller."

As with all recreation facilities looking to make their sites ADA compatible, the Corps is making progress toward improving its restrooms, trails, parking lots, and tailoring its literature and signage to the sight- and hearing-impaired with Braille and tapes. It also considers the needs of other special populations.

"For those with learning limits, we have to reduce our text or provide optimal text for those with lower IQs," Lewis says.

The Corps recognizes that recreation isn't just about fun, but that it benefits people. Studies show that those who are involved in regular outdoor recreation live longer, happier and healthier lives and that introducing children to these activities early in life is vital.

"The most important indicator as adults is whether they had exposure as a child," Crandall says. With a report from the ARC in 2001 that Internet users and those between the ages of 18 and 29 were declining in outdoor recreation participation, it takes a more concerted effort to attract the young to the outdoor world.

The tried and true
Lake Tahoe in California

Some of the Corps' success can be traced to just plain good sense. When Topper first arrived at Lake Lanier 19 years ago, he made an executive decision: If you haven't got a decent bathroom, you haven't got a park. He was determined to get out of the pit-toilet business. Although making that a priority meant allowing other projects to temporarily simmer on the back-burner, the decision to put the park on a municipal water supply system virtually transformed the parks. It took seven years, but the result was a shift from pit-toilet arsonists and troublemakers to a more apple-pie clientele of mom, dad and the kids.

Going into its second century of providing outdoor recreation, the Corps has identified four areas of strategic service: to the individual, communities, the economy and the environment. It has a lot to offer and a lot of experience to offer it from. Listening to patrons, tracking the trends, making the most of what it's got, partnering with like-minded organizations and taking pains to maintain great staff are all part of what the Corps attribute to its success—that, and of course, "it's water."