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Citizens debate merits of fee demo areas

Jane Stebbins

FRISCO – U.S. Forest Service officials, politicians, environmentalists and people opposed to paying to use public lands met Thursday night in Frisco to discuss how citizens can help the Forest Service in its mission to protect public lands.

It won’t be easy, forum panelists agreed, because the problem starts at the congressional level. There, politicians are starting to turn away from taxes as a way to fund federal programs and beginning to rely more on user fees, said Doug Young, district policy director for public lands and natural resources for Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder.

Such user fees have been in place on the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest since 1996. Then, the Forest Service implemented a “fee demonstration” program at Cataract Lake in the Gore Range and charged a $5 fee to park at the trailhead.

Last year, those fees brought about $19,000 into Forest Service coffers, most of which was spent to maintain the trails, toilet facilities and picnic areas around the popular lake.

Another fee demo area is at Vail Pass, where recreationists asked the Forest Service to help them alleviate conflicts between users in the area, primarily Nordic skiers and snowmobilers.

Since 2000, trails have been rerouted to keep the two user groups separate, signage is in place to educate people, and problems there have greatly decreased. The fee demo program there brings in $90,000 to $100,000 each winter season.

Yet, it’s still not enough, Young said.

The Forest Service received 51 percent less funding from Congress last year than it did in 1992, said Rich Doak, recreation program manager for the White River National Forest. That leaves the federal agency scrambling to make up the difference for the programs it provides.

Every time Congress doesn’t fully fund one part of the Forest Service budget, another suffers, Young said.

For example, each year the Forest Service spends about $1 billion nationwide to fight forest fires. This past fiscal year, Congress funded the agency $418 million, leaving the Forest Service no choice but to rob its other programs – land acquisition, maintenance, construction and recreation among them – of funding.

The Forest Service uses a variety of funding options, but its fee demo program is arguably the most contentious. The program was originally supposed to be temporary, but each year, Congress extends that status.

It expires this fall, and some politicians, including Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, are considering legislation that would make it permanent, Young said.

That doesn’t sit well with many people, some of whom have twice burned down the fee station at Cataract Lake.

Another opponent is Tom Phillips of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition of Norwood, whose group believes fee-demo programs discriminate against lower-income folks, are a form of double-taxation and, as revenue sources, are a complete failure.

“We own these public lands,” he said. “We already pay for their upkeep. We don’t think it’s fair that Congress cuts the Forest Service budget, then tells them to make up that revenue with fees. We’ve tried stopping it locally, but it began in Congress, so it probably has to end in Congress.”

He and others feel the program is merely in place to benefit concessionaires who can charge more with every new amenity they provide.

“I’m concerned with the privatization of public agencies,” said Karn Stiegelmeier of the Blue River Group of the Sierra Club. “They’re pushed into developing sites for money.”

Young encouraged the 30 or so citizens at the forum to contact their legislators and encourage them to fund the Forest Service fully, and thus, reduce the need for user fees.

“Tell them to fully fund the agency so they can perform the way they’re expected to perform,” he said. “There is power in numbers; you can make a difference.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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