Fee-demo programs to take a hike out – or up | SummitDaily.com

Fee-demo programs to take a hike out – or up

FRISCO – The cost to play on public lands might be ready to take a hike. But whether that will be a hike in price, or a hike toward extinction has yet to be seen.

Currently, the cost to access most public lands remains free. But increasingly, parks, national forests and other public lands are closing their doors and opening them to people willing to pay a fee.

Congress put temporary fee demo programs in place in 1996 to help the U.S. Forest Service bridge the gap between the money it needs to operate and the money Congress gives it every year. In Summit County, such programs are in place at Cataract Lake in the Gore Range in the summer and Vail Pass in the winter.

But the programs are due to expire this fall, so federal lawmakers are scrambling to introduce legislation that would make them permanent – or, depending on who’s doing the proposing, eliminating them altogether.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., has crafted Senate Bill 1107, which would eliminate the program. The only problem with that, according to political aides and environmentalists alike, is that the bill doesn’t address how the Forest Service would make up the difference between its operating expenses and revenue.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, has expressed interest in making the demonstration programs permanent, said Doug Young, district policy director for Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder.

But Lynn Scarlett, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, has another idea. She asked lawmakers earlier this week to amend Thomas’ bill to make the program permanent and create a nationwide pass that allows people into all public lands.

Currently, there are a variety of passes available, depending where a person wants to visit. For instance, people wishing to visit national parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges, national monuments and Bureau of Land Management lands, can purchase a $65 Golden Eagle Pass.

But that won’t get people into every parcel of public land, which often irks people when they pull up to a fee booth, present their pass and are told it isn’t valid.

Officials at the Interior Department now are proposing creation of a nationwide outdoors pass that would get people into national parks, forests, dams, recreation areas, national forests and other federally owned public lands.

Scarlett said earlier this week that a consolidated pass would make it less confusing for visitors who sometimes believe once they’ve purchased, say, a national parks pass, they can get into any public park. Scarlett encouraged the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks to consider implementing such a pass on an experimental basis in the next year or two.

Currently, 60 percent of the 277 million people who enter national parks each year pay fees to get in. About 13 percent of those using Bureau of Land Management lands pay fees to enter.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or jstebbins@summitdaily.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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