Bill proposes fee to use public lands |

Bill proposes fee to use public lands

Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – Hikers, mountain bikers and others who recreate in the national forests could be charged up to $85 for an annual pass under legislation proposed by a U.S. congressman from Ohio.

Republican Rep. Ralph Regula proposed a bill – called the America the Beautiful Pass – that would make recreation fees permanent. Summit County has two recreational fee demo programs where backcountry users pay a nominal fee to access national forest service lands. One is at the Vail Pass Recreation Area; the other is at Cataract Lake along the Gore Range north of Silverthorne.

The proposed bill, which has yet to be debated, has outraged local backcountry enthusiasts. Additional fees could be charged for motorized vehicle use on public lands.

“I’ve been opposed to the fee programs just because I think we pay enough taxes anyway,” said Tom Jones Sr. of Wilderness Sports in Frisco and Silverthorne. “An annual fee is ridiculous. It might just turn a lot of people away from going in the backcountry.”

“The only way I think that would fly is if it included rescue (provisions),” said Rachel Sowers of Mountain Outfitters in Breckenridge. “It’s our country. We already pay taxes to support open space and federal land. I want to see that tax money going to something good.”

“Do you want something that you can print?” fumed Barry Kirkpatrick, a partner at Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, who spends time hiking, hunting and mountain biking in the backcountry. “That’s public land. I’m opposed to any fee. I think it’s nonsense.”

For the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, based in Norwood, the proposed bill is an affront to its efforts to abolish such programs.

“It makes criminals of Americans for visiting their own lands,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the group.

Under Regula’s bill, people who visit public lands without paying the fee would be subject to a fine. But locals wonder how that would be enforced, particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. Forest Service is strapped for cash for numerous programs, especially enforcement.

No one was available to comment from the Silverthorne U.S. Forest Service office Friday.

Opponents claim the bill will lead to commercialization of public lands. They envision companies like Disney becoming partners with the government and handling the administration of access to public lands.

“This is our worst fear,” said Funkhouser. “This is what the recreation industry has been fighting for.”

But members of Congress expect Regula’s bill to face a tough time. Blair Jones, a spokesman for Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, said the congressman is against the Regula bill because he believes there are unresolved questions about the effectiveness of the recreation fee program.

McInnis successfully urged the Government Accounting Office – the nonpartisan, investigatory branch of Congress – to examine the program earlier this year. The report indicated it has worked for the National Park Service. The same report, however, questioned whether the Forest Service has effectively used the funds for maintenance of facilities and projects.

McInnis wants those issues addressed before the program is extended, let alone made permanent.

He is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Forest Health and held hearings in September on the recreation fee demonstration program. McInnis has said the program should be fully debated by the House Resource Committee before it is extended.

– Scott Condon of the Aspen Times contributed to this report

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