A beloved but troubled Oregon destination is on the verge of a major change. Bagby Hot Springs is nestled in an old-growth forest on Mount Hood.
Visitors rave about the experience. But the bathhouses are not aging well, and there have been complaints about the behavior of some bathers.
The Forest Service’s solution – to hand management of the springs over to a private company – is getting the agency into some hot water.
On this November day, the hike into Bagby is gorgeous. Snow is falling along the trail and there’s a thin layer of fog around the towering fir trees.
Michael Ryvasy first visited, more than a decade ago.
Michael Ryvasy: “I still remember the first time I came up over the hill and the bathhouses in the trees, seeing the steam rising up, and the people just enjoying the forest. When you’re in a hot spring, I mean you’re actually ungulfed in nature. And it’s a really magical experience.”
But Bagby’s magic comes with some mundane problems. That dripping isn’t the rain – it’s the sound of water coming out of a leaky water trough and tubs.
Kathleen Walker works for the Forest Service in the Mount Hood National Forest.
Kathleen Walker: “All the tubs had terrible leaks. They’d been shot up, they’d been vandalized, much of the structure was rotting away. There was never any drains for the tubs, so people pulled the plugs and all the water went down onto the structural supports. So it was all pretty rotted.”
The Forest Service is in the midst of major plumbing and carpentry work. Bagby supporters say it generally looks pretty good.
The conflict at Bagby is not about repair work. It’s about who’s going to run things, once the pipes are fixed.
The Forest Service has its answer. Private companies are submitting bids through Monday to run Bagby as well as other sites on Mt. Hood.
Private management has been a controversial trend for years on Mount Hood – but opponents say the way supporters revere Bagby makes privatizing it even less popular.
Bagby enthusiast, Michael Ryvasy has spent countless days volunteering with the Northwest Forest Conservancy, fixing up Bagby. But he says his group doesn’t want to do anymore now, if the site is being handed to a private concessionaire.
Michael Ryvasy: “If the Forest Service had ever come to us and said ‘we’d like to have your help, taking care of the facilities,’ years ago, before things started deteriorating, we might’ve been able to help. But coming to us right before it went to a concessionaire, and asking for our help before it goes to a for-profit company, would be almost unethical for us to do.”
Ryvasy’s criticism was made directly to Forest Service employees on a recent visit to Bagby. Walker, who is helping to supervise the contracting process, defended private management.
Kathleen Walker: “The place had basically almost melted away. You’d come out here and there’d be ten bags of trash, every time I came out here. So...."
Michael Ryvasy: “That was Forest Service management. Because there wasn’t anybody else taking care of the place.”
Kathleen Walker: “It’s been a combination of different things. So obviously there’s no easy answer, but we feel that we need someone out here with a fairly good continued presence, 24 hours – because we’ve invested a lot of money, to get things up and operational.”
In short, the Forest Service believes private management is the best way to protect its investment in Bagby – and protect the Bagby experience.
But visitors will notice at least one change: it won’t be free to bathe anymore. There’s already a five-dollar parking fee. Walker wouldn’t say how much more the company that gets selected might tack on for bathing.
Kathleen Walker: “Fees to the public is one of our primary evaluation criteria that we’re looking at, so we’re wanting to keep those as low as possible.”
The Forest Service intends to award a single “special permit” for one private business to run about 60 sites on Mount Hood, including Bagby. Officials say Bagby won’t be a very profitable spot. With security, cleaning, and maintenance, they say it costs more than most campgrounds. But Walker says the potential for profit offers an incentive for a company to come in.
Kathleen Walker: “None of us can all survive, if they’re not making somewhat of a profit.”
Amy Harwood: “Well, or a non-profit could take on the concessionaire. There could be not a profit made off of this.”
That’s Amy Harwood. She’s with Bark, an environmental group that focuses on Mt. Hood. Bark is calling for non-profit management. Her group has been critical of private management of campgrounds – and says it’s led campers to seek less safe parts of the forest, to avoid the fees.
Harwood was told that her idea of non-profit management wouldn’t work because typically large businesses are the ones with the fleet of vehicles and insurance to manage a portfolio of sites. She’s concerned the company with the right qualifications for the Forest Service won’t have the right qualities for the public.
Amy Harwood: “What are the values of the companies running these sites? Do they meet the values of the people who are actually using these sites?”
Michael Ryvasy has the same concerns. He says for instance – people love coming to Bagby at night. But people on all sides agree that’s when vandalism, trash, and alcohol become problems. Ryvasy expects that a private company would close the hot springs after dark.
Michael Ryvasy: “It’s hard to regulate at night – you’re going to have somebody stationed at 3 in the morning when the bars closed, to get your five-dollars, or your fee, from people coming up from the bars.
It certainly is problematic. Soaking in hot springs at night is something that a lot of people find a unique experience, magical, looking up at the stars. And especially here in the Northwest – it gets dark kind of early in the winter.”
Ryvasy says involving volunteers and outside fundraising could have produced an alternative to private management. But Forest Service officials say volunteers aren’t a substitute for paid staff – and they say it’s premature to assume Bagby will close at night.
What contractors will do isn’t clear. The Forest Service says three companies have looked at the sites going up for bid, but formal bids were slow to come in. A decision about what company will run Bagby could come before the end of the year.