Pay to play to become law of the land |

Pay to play to become law of the land

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A bill approved by Congress this week preserves the right for the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies to charge the public a fee to visit special sites. The bill could allow agencies to expand the recreation fee program to raise revenues a salvation for cash-strapped forest managers which adds a financial burden for recreationists.After bouncing around as a political hot potato the last few years, the permanent recreation-fee bill for public federal lands landed squarely back in the hands of its progenitor, Ohio Republican Congressman Ralph Regula, who promptly made pay-to-play the law of the land, pending President Bushs signature.Passed by Congress this week as part of a giant spending bill, HR 3283 permanently authorizes collection of recreation fees at sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.Thats no way to legislate, said Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for U.S. Congressman Mark Udall (D-Colo.). To stick it in a midnight rider is dirty pool. Pacheco was referring to a backroom deal that led to inclusion of Regulas fee demo measure in the spending bill.Pacheco said the measure includes the same language Udall voted against earlier this year in committee. Instead of fees, Udall said Congress needs to adequately fund federal land agencies.According to the Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee coalition, Regulas bill found no support from Western lawmakers in the House. But the Ohio congressman found a powerful ally in Alaskas Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who may see some extra federal highway funds flow toward a remote part of his state. This was a victory of pork over principle, said Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a Colorado-based group opposed to recreation fees. Ralph Regula is responsible for the first tax increase of the Bush administration. He and Senator Stevens have sold out Americas heritage of public lands for the price of a road.Funkhouser said earlier attempts by Regula to attach the fee bill as a rider were rebuffed by the chairmen of all four pertinent Senate committees. Senator Thomas (R-Wyo.) of the National Parks Subcommittee, Senator Domenici (R-N.M.) at Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Craig (R-Idaho) of the Public Lands Subcommittee, and Senator Burns (R-Mont.), Chair of the Interior Appropriations Committee, succeeded in forcing Regula to remove his last week.But the deal with Sen. Stevens trumped all. And while Funkhouser said anti-fee activists would keep fighting, Pacheco said its unlikely, given the current political climate, that Congress would repeal the legislation.Regula, the powerful lawmaker with no federal public lands in his district, first introduced the contentious pay-to-play concept as a pilot project in 1998. Since then, its been extended every year or two, garnering support from at least some top federal land managers along the way. Facing flat or declining funding and growing recreational use, some agency officials advocated for the fees, hoping to fill budget gaps.Former White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle, for example, publicly advocated for fees in op-ed pieces published in local papers. Along with other Forest Service planners and recreation experts, Ketelle said the fees were an appropriate mechanism to generate revenues for recreation management.But the fee demo program, as it became known, drew plenty of fire as it was extended and expanded year by year. The most scathing critic has long been Scott Silver, the Bend, Ore., activist and founder of the anti-fee group Wild Wilderness. According to Silver, recreation fees for trailheads and other traditionally free public land uses is a giant step toward the ultimate commercialization of this unique American commons. The permanent fee measure passed this week includes one of Silvers biggest nightmares: language that encourages agencies like the Forest Service to partner with private companies to collect fees and manage pay sites.If the permanent fee scenario plays out the way Silver envisions it, many public lands will soon be managed by private concessionaires. Their mission wont be to care for the land and the people, Silver warns, but to maximize earnings, leading to the exploitation of resources at the expense of the public interest.Other critics have called the fees a form of double taxation. Some Forest Service studies even showed a potential for economic impacts to lower-income citizens, who said they would choose to visit public lands less often when fees are charged.Congressional studies over the years showed that an inordinately high percentage of the fee revenues were going back to covering the cost of running the program, with little left over for the promised on-the-ground improvements. A scathing report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the fee program had a lack of oversight and accountability.Forest Service officials have said the pilot fee programs authorized up to now have enabled them to work the kinks out of the system, and have improved performance and accountability. The agencys recreation experts claim they can maintain careful oversight, holding contractors to a high standard with a stringent permitting and review process. And regional officials have said there are no plans to make the fee program widespread. Instead they plan to focus on high-use areas, where infrastructure improvements are needed for public safety and to protect resources.But the fees have already started creeping beyond those modest boundaries. Even simple picnic areas in relatively remote spots like Grand Mesa (near Grand Junction) or in busy areas like near Dillon Reservoir and along Chicago Creek, in Clear Creek County, have been targeted for fees.

In Summit County, hikers and anglers have to pull out their wallet at the Cataract Lake trailhead to pay recreation fees during the summer, as do cross country skiers and snowmobilers at Vail Pass, where winter fees have been collected since 1998. Some camping areas around Green Mountain Reservoir are also managed under the fee program.The Vail Pass and Green Mountain fee programs have been managed in a collaborative process involving stakeholders and users, and appear to have grassroots support, according to Ken Waugh, recreation expert on the USFS Dillon Ranger District. Opposition to the fees has been muted locally, although the fee collection station at Cataract Lake was burned twice in the early years of the program.Part of the agencys claim that fees have public support is based on compliance rates, with payment of the fee counted as an affirmation of the program.Waugh said Forest Service experts have yet to analyze the bills detailed language, and thus couldnt comment on what the impacts might be in Summit County. But locally, agency planners have been proceeding under the assumption that recreation fees would become permanent. A top priority is an overall recreation management plan for the heavily used Cataract Lake/Green Mountain area. According to Waugh, the Forest Service has been working on a fee-based draft plan that could be available for public review in the next few months. Waugh said the agency compiled a contact list from users in the area, and will gather input on the draft directly from the list.Assuming that the fee program becomes permanent, that would allow us to move forward with the plan, Waugh said. Wed like to have more of a presence there, he said, acknowledging the need for more management in the popular recreation area.One piece of the plan is to provide more education and interpretation at the well-traveled Cataract gateway to the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Waugh said the district has also been eyeing Sapphire Point as a potential fee site, although he said short-term visitors to the site probably wouldnt notice any difference. And the Forest Service might also consider trying to open the Officers Gulch campground to meet peak summer demand. According to Waugh, the public is asking for more developed camping in Summit County.Thats one were not interested in taking on without fee demo, Waugh said, explaining that the site would require a fair bit of work before opening as a campground.Bob Berwyn can be contacted at

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