Going camping? Bring a credit card because more and more campgrounds no longer accept cash.
We visited Trout Creek campground about 20 miles north of Madras for a look at one of the new remote off-grid payment kiosks. How does it work? We made a campground reservation.
“So, we’ve got ‘Occupy campsite first.’ That gives you a chance to drive around the campground and choose the site that works best for you,” explained Mike Millay, Bureau of Land Management Outdoor Recreation Planner.
As part of a pilot project, the BLM has installed solar powered credit card payment machines in the Mecca Flat and Trout Creek campgrounds on the banks of the Deschutes River, north of Madras.
There is no option to pay cash.
“So, we’ll go ‘Pay for camp site.’ Simple click of the button. Campsite number: It pops up what’s available. I’m going to choose three because I like that site and press enter. Number of nights: one. And we’ll go Senior Access Pass. You get the discount there. No spare vehicles so I’m going to press purchase. It tells us our total is $4.20. Not a bad deal. Please insert card. It’s grinding away. Purchase complete. Printing ticket, so there we go.”
The entire process of scrolling through menus, making selections and processing the credit card payment took less than a minute. The purchaser then posts the printed receipt on a marker at the campsite with the dates paid for clearly displayed. It’s easy, simple and quick.
The credit card machines are called Remote Off-Grid Kiosks, or ROKs for short. They run off solar power and upload encrypted credit card transactions through cellular phone connections. If there is no cell service, rangers transfer the payments wirelessly to a notepad that completes the transactions when the notepad is back in Wi-Fi coverage.
I asked Ethan Drake, who I found in a nearby campsite preparing to go rock climbing, what he thought of the new credit card payment system.
“Awesome. Great news,” Drake said. “So often what happens is I come out camping, I won’t have cash on me. I’ve had instances in the past where I’ve had to send in a payment later because I didn’t have cash on me to pay at the time. Anything that helps make paying for campsites easier to get funds to public lands.”
The days of filling out a payment envelope and dropping cash or a check into an iron tube are over at Trout Creek. Millay said there’s a couple of reasons for that.
“We spend days and days collecting fee dollars from these iron rangers. It’s mostly for efficiency. Every two days we take those monies to the agency. Then we have to count them. Then we have a double count, and it gets counted again. So, efficiency is the number one reason. The number two reason is benefit to the public.”
Vandalism of the payment tubes in which campers dropped their cash or checks to pay camping fees is another reason for the shift to credit cards.
How do people break those open? What was going on there?
“Well, I don’t want to give any more ideas. The goal is to remove them. It’s been more frequent in the last few years that people are either fishing their way in or cutting, winching, and pulling those things out,” Millay said. “Typically, there’s more damage done to a $500 fee tube than the money they are getting out of it. It’s frustrating for the users. It’s frustrating for managers. It’s getting progressively worse. There is no cash in the ROKs, and it is clearly stated on that.”
I watched two payments processed through the remote off-grid kiosk. One by a ranger; another by a visitor.
“This one was great. I’ve used some of these (credit card payment machines) in the past, maybe a little older, kind of beat up. This one was great,” Drake said. “It took all of 5.5 seconds. Faster than filling out an envelope.”
Drake says the credit card payment is better than writing a check for “some schmuck back at the office” to deal with.
“The ROK has been piloted at different BLM sites across the nation. What we’ve seen is that compliance has gone up 30%. I think that’s due to people having a card instead of cash. We hope to see that because the fees from this site, go back to this site.”
Get used to the idea of paying for campsites with credit cards.
The BLM has awarded a contract to install 12 more credit card payment machines in most of the drive-in campgrounds along the river in the Maupin area.
“Most important is the amount of time we save doing fee collection, that our park rangers can do park ranger things. Work on interpretation, make public interactions and help educate. The time they were collecting is going to be freed up to do more park ranger like things. I think all users will see benefit from that.”
More than 250 credit card payments were processed in the first month that two of the remote off-grid kiosks were available. So far, there’s been no complaints.