Congress debates user-fee program
SUMMIT COUNT – U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis Wednesday headed up a hearing in the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health to address the pros and cons of user fees in popular national forest service lands.
McInnis, who represents Colorado’s Third Congressional District, has long favored use fees such as those in place at Cataract Lakes and Vail Pass in Summit County. There, users must pay a nominal fee to use the area. The Forest Service needs to collect the fees to make up the difference between its operating costs and what Congress allocates the agency each year.
Fee collections at Cataract Lake average $19,000 a year; Vail Pass users contribute an average of $90,000 to $100,000 each year to Forest Service coffers. Under the terms of the program, a minimum of 80 percent of the funds generated at each site helps pay for amenities – restrooms, trail maintenance and picnic sites – in that area.
The program has been in place on a temporary basis since 1996, and Congress has extended it four times. It will expire next year, if Congress decides not to extend it again.
Wednesday, McInnis summoned program supporters and detractors to the hearing to help Congress decide if and how the program should be extended again.
Opponents of the fee demo program argue that people should have free access to public lands, that charging them represents double taxation because taxpayers already pay for the upkeep of public lands, and that charging such fees precludes low-income people from participating in recreational activities on public lands.
Doug Young, district policy director for public lands and natural resources for Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., told a group of citizens last week that the Forest Service wouldn’t have these problems if Congress would fully fund the agency.
Udall, who voted last July to remove the provision that would extend the fee demo program for another two years – it lost, 184-241 – believes the process itself is flawed. The proposal to extend the fee program is a rider on an appropriations bill, and he feels it should be addressed in the resources committee, which has jurisdiction over such issues.
Some opponents have noted that McInnis has always supported the program.
“I have made it no secret over the years that I support the user pay concept, provided the fee is reasonable and that it is collected only in certain developed or high-use areas,” McInnis said in the hearing. “The Forest Service and other land management agencies have enormous financial needs, particularly in the maintenance backlog department, which appropriated dollars just aren’t meeting. That is unfortunate, but it is reality. Given this acute need, it is only fair that forest users help partially defray some of the additional costs associated with their use.”
In 2001, the Forest Service’s fee demo projects raised $35 million. About one-third of the revenues were spent on “enhancing facilities, protecting resources and enforcing laws,” according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report McInnis cited at the hearing. Another 29 percent was spent on visitor services and operations like trash collection. Twenty-one percent was spent on maintenance.
The remaining 17 percent was spent on collecting the fees, the GAO concluded. Additional funds pay the partial salaries and benefits of people employed at least part-time to collect fees.
That, too, has McInnis concerned.
“I’m concerned that, unlike the Park Service, the Forest Service has done little to ensure that fee revenues are spent as a first priority to pay down its mammoth recreation maintenance backlog,” he said. “I am troubled that the Forest Service appears to be spending between $15 million and $20 million of fee-generated and appropriated dollars administering a program that brings in only about $35 million a year.”
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