By Elizabeth Shogren
High Country News
For more than 40 years, Mike Cottingham has been sending teenagers into national parks, forests and wilderness areas for multi-week backcountry outings. They run rapids, ride horseback and summit some of the West’s most famous peaks.
But Cottingham believes he will be forced out of business by a new Obama administration requirement to pay staff a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. Cottingham recently beseeched a congressional panel to exempt outfitters, summer camps and other outdoor recreation businesses.
Cottingham explained that to keep costs affordable for campers’ parents, Wilderness Ventures Inc. pays 80-100 college-aged counselors around $2,500 for six to seven weeks of what can be 24-7 work. “Plus they are getting bonuses of being able to climb major peaks (and) raft rivers,” Cottingham added. He estimated that complying with the new rule would triple or quadruple his payroll and require him to increase fees so much that only the richest families could participate.
The $10.10 minimum wage kicks in when a company gets a new permit to operate on federal land. This summer only one of Wilderness Ventures’ dozens of itineraries, one that includes Olympic National Park, will face the new wage requirements. But in the coming years, as his permits expire, most of his programs in the United States – such as trips to the High Sierras, Denali, Yellowstone and the Oregon Cascades – could become just too pricey.
The American Outdoors Association, which represents several hundred outdoor companies across the country, told the members of Congress that many outfitters fear they’ll have to raise costs, cut staff or even go out of business because of the new requirements, which include making sure subcontractors also pay the new wages.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced a bill to try to exempt recreation businesses from the new rule. “It’s a simple fix that will allow these businesses to continue to operate on federal lands and allow all of us the opportunity to enjoy extraordinary experiences in our national parks and other public lands,” Stewart told the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Interior.
The Labor Department official told the panel that President Obama’s executive order, which dictated the rule, clearly included companies operating on federal lands under permits.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, who chairs the subpanel, said that the Obama administration has promoted tourism on federal lands to replace logging, mining and drilling operations that have been “strangled by regulation.”
“So it’s rather ironic that now the executive branch is working to regulate wilderness tourism out of business,” Lummis said.
But Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department assistant administrator, said that added costs to businesses would be offset by benefits, including improved employee morale, less turnover and more productivity.
“We’re rewarding a hard day’s work,” Lazzeri said.
Cottingham said that the Labor Department doesn’t understand his employees.
“I’ve never met a mountain guide on Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, Mount Shasta, I’ve never met a river rafting guide on any of the rivers I run, who had low morale,” Cottingham said. “They’re people doing this because they just love the opportunity to share their enthusiasm.”
High Country News asked the Labor Department whether outfitters could avoid paying seasonal workers the new wages, and was told the answers would not be available by deadline. High Country News also requested copies of any comments submitted by the Interior Department or Forest Service, and was told to submit a Freedom of Information Act request. Answers to such requests routinely take months.
Elizabeth Shogren is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for High Country News.