Formal Complaint to US Forest Service and Parks Management Company regarding incident at Arroyo Seco Campground

I am submitting this letter as a formal complaint about the US Forest Service, Parks Management Company (PMC), which runs the Arroyo Seco campground in Big Sur, and Debbie Renee, an employee of PMC.

On June 24th 2017, myself and a group of 6 friends visited the Arroyo Seco campground and paid for day parking. Like most people who visit this campground, we hiked the 2 miles out to Santa Lucia Creek to swim in the river. When 3 of us were done swimming we hiked back to the car while the other four were still swimming. After a long time waiting at the car, one of our friends came running out to us, saying that another member of our group was not doing so well and was waiting with the rest of the group at the creek. It’s unclear exactly what was wrong, but it looked like he had a rash on his legs and was feeling faint, and unsure if he was able to hike back out. He suspected it may have been some reaction to the cold water, which he had experienced before, but again, it wasn’t clear exactly what the problem was so my friend thought it best to run ahead and request that a park ranger pick him up, or at least allow us take our car on the forest service road and pick him up.

We spoke to an employee of PMC at the park gate who told us that the forest road is beyond their jurisdiction, and that they did not have a key to the gate. They said that the forest rangers were not present on Saturdays and that the only way to access the road would be to call 911. So our options were either to hike back to our friend and try to walk him out, or to call 911. Calling 911 did not seem like a proportionate response — we had no way of contacting the injured friend to understand if he had health insurance, if he was willing to pay the expense of bringing out an ambulance, or if he felt that he needed this level of treatment in his current state.

We opted to begin walking back to meet up with the rest of the group and collect the individual, but noticed at the trailhead that the gate was not locked, it was just closed. We decided that two of us would walk back to meet the individual and the other two would go ask the PMC employees to either collect our friend or give us permission to drive the forest road ourselves and pick up our friend.

I spoke to the PMC employee at the gate and he was adamant that there was nothing he could do other than calling 911 — anything else would result in him losing his job. I explained that I understood his position, however, that I did not think calling 911 was an appropriate response, and also that it would be much faster for us to collect the friend and drive him to a hospital if need be, since we were already there. An ambulance would have to come from Greenfield which would take at least 30 minutes. When he again refused, I politely said that I understand his position, and if he could please call his supervisor so that I could speak to someone more empowered to make real-time decisions to deal with an emergency.

It took 20 minutes for Debbie Renee to show up (apologies if spelling is incorrect — more on that later), and during the time we waited, I have to say that the background chatter on the radio gave me the impression that the PMC employees did not see us as paying customers, but as unwelcomed guests who were nothing but an inconvenience to them.

When Debbie arrived, I politely explained the situation and requested that, since the gate was not locked, either we be given permission to drive out to collect our friend, or a PMC employee could do this. Debbie said that she just worked for the Park Management, not the forest service and there was nothing she could do. Also, it would be risky for a car to drive out because of the landslides they have been having in Big Sur due to rain or snow melt. I had seen that park management had a golf cart and asked Debbie if the weight of the vehicle was a concern, could a PMC employee drive out using the golf cart. Again she refused and said that there’s nothing she can do and she is not giving us permission to drive ourselves. She said she’d give me her card and write the number of the Forest Service so I could follow up with them. At this point, enough time had passed that one of our friends came running down to the park entrance and said that everyone had made it back from the hike ok, and there was no need to call an ambulance. I asked Debbie for her card, and she now said “no”. When asked why, she said “because I don’t like your attitude”.

Before getting into my issues with this situation, let me clarify the following:

  1. I understand that we had the option to call 911 and it is our group’s fault for not clarifying with the individual what health insurance he had and what levels of action he would be willing to take, prior to my friend running out to seek help.
  2. I understand that general road access rules are imposed on PMC by the Forest Service and that PMC, by default, should adhere to these rules.

These are my issues with the way the situation was handled by Debbie and PMC:

  1. Outdoor recreation carries inherent risks, and as a company profiting off this recreation, you need to have the ability to deal with an emergency quickly, at any time the park is open. Quite frankly, I was alarmed by the indifference shown by all employees of PMC and their inability to act quickly or provide useful assistance.
  2. Anyone who enters the park is a paying customer and deserves to be treated like one. I got the impression that all the PMC employees considered us not as guests, but as an inconvenience, or as trouble makers that required the PMC employees to sternly assert the rules as written, instead of listening to our problem and trying to find a way to help.

To Debbie specifically:

  1. It’s impossible to write rules that adequately cover every single situation, so instead, blanket rules are put in place that generally protect the public. However, under exceptional situations, it is the role of leaders — intelligent and pragmatic individuals — to interpret the intent of the rule and find the best way to apply it to the situation at hand. This is why we have a Supreme Court: the constitution provides general guidance, but it doesn’t capture every nuanced situation, so a select group of intelligent and reasonable individuals is put in place to interpret the constitution as it applies to individual situations. Similarly, it is the role of a good manager to make swift real time decisions to best manage the needs of all stakeholders. I believe you acted unreasonably and with poor judgement, and missed the intent of the Forest Service rule to not allow cars on the service road. Yes, in general this makes sense since there are many hikers on this road and having multiple cars on the road would be dangerous. I also agree that during wet periods, there is genuine risk of the road collapsing. But after many days with no rain, I don’t think it is unreasonable to make an exception to allow a single car or golf cart on the road to help an individual with an injury of unknown severity. Luckily no one was hurt in the end, but how would feel if the injury was actually more serious, and you could have taken action to help, but didn’t? Would your superiors and direct reports respect you for upholding the rules at all costs, or would they lose respect for you for being overly rigid and showing poor judgement? Again, even if an ambulance was called, it would have been much faster to simply collect the individual and drive him out.
  2. I am not a fool and don’t appreciate being treated like one. Using the excuse that you cannot take a golf cart on the trail because there is a risk of a landslide is a lie. A golf cart weighs about 700 pounds. That’s about the same weight as me and 3 friends. If four 180 pound men are walking on the trail, that is exactly the same load on the road as the golf cart. If you cannot send a golf cart along the trail for risk of the road collapsing, then no-one should be allowed to hike the trail either.
  3. Lastly, the fact that you were unwilling to give me your business card or provide any means of following up indicates that you do not trust your own judgement. You wanted to take the option that was the easiest for you — to enforce the rules as written, as opposed to finding a pragmatic solution. But then wanted to avoid any chance of a complaint against your actions. I find this extremely unprofessional. As an upper level manager, your should be willing to make decisions and firmly put your name behind them.

These are my issues with the Forest Service, who employs PMC:

  1. If you are going to parcel off your management responsibility to a third party, then you need to empower them to deal with issues that arise in a pragmatic way, or always have a Forest Service representative on hand. How do you not have anyone there on a Saturday — what I presume is one of the busiest days of the week?
  2. PMC seems like a poor choice and I am very disappointed in their service. I personally pay a substantial amount of federal and state taxes each year and, while I am perfectly happy to pay taxes, I expect the government bureaus to use this money wisely and provide public value — in your case, by allowing the public to safely enjoy our great national parks. I did not like the attitude of PMC employees as I felt they made us feel like intruders on their space. I would suggest a different company or at least some customer service training if you are going to continue using PMC.

I hope the Forest Service, PMC and Debbie take this complaint as some constructive criticism and use it to improve their service in future. My goal in writing this is ultimately to improve the safety and enjoyment of national forests for the public.

Sincerely,

William Price