Forest Service fee demo program up for discussion
We all love the White River National Forest. It is our backyard and playground. Many of us spent long hours in meetings and discussions regarding the revised White River National Forest Plan that is now being reworked by politicians in Washington.
Decisions are never easy regarding our backyard forest, and the issues of fees for use of some forest sites under the demonstration fee program and the Forest Service budget crisis are no exception.
The subjects are politically loaded. They are emotional issues for many who recreate and find solace in our favorite places.
There are many types of forest users: backcountry hikers and skiers who only want trail access, campers who want a clean toilet, bikers, ATV users, etc.
We are lucky enough to have a recreational priority in the White River National Forest, rather than timber cutting and resource extraction. However, this is part of the budget problem: Recreation is always the poor stepchild to other multiple uses.
Recreation has boomed in national forests and is considered by many to be a preferred and less-damaging use. The recreation budgets have not kept up with demand and forests are suffering from being “overloved.”
In Summit County, we still have Arapahoe National Forest signs in many places even though the forest boundaries changed about 15 years ago. Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness volunteers have filled some desperate needs for trail and trailhead maintenance and signage.
Today, Robert Funkhouser of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition is testifying in favor of the Senate Bill 1107, sponsored by Craig Thomas, (R-Wyo.)
The bill will end demonstration fees for all but the national parks. The coalition sees the “fee demo” program as just one step toward commercialization and privatization of our national lands.
The fee demo program began as an appropriations rider in 1996. It allowed the creation of much-needed programs to separate motorized and nonmotorized access to Vail Pass area and more adequate facilities for campers and recreationists at Green Mountain Reservoir.
Many argue that paying to park at Cataract Lake is not a fair use of the program. Funkhouser argues that one- third of total revenues are spent in fee collection and the program is arbitrarily and unfairly applied. There is no relationship between services provided and fees charged. Opponents also argue that fees make these lands inaccessible to lower income Americans.
My husband, daughter and I were in the Sedona, Ariz., area last spring and after purchasing our $5 Red Rock day pass, we found we owed an additional $5 for the particular trailhead we had chosen. Paying $10 to hike (particularly with a 5-year-old who can only hike a few short miles) seems to fit the elitism argument.
Nonetheless, heavily used hiking trailheads like Cataract Lake (or the poster child: Maroon Bells) need funds to provide information, restrooms and endless garbage patrol to prevent damage to the resource.
Where does the money come from? The privatization of our national forests, national parks and other federal lands owned by us, would be devastating, in my view.
I just don’t trust the private, for-profit sector to keep protection of our resources primary in its goals. Most employees of these agencies (including myself in a past life) are dedicated to protecting the resource.
They have chosen that career path out of a love of natural areas, not because it provided a big paycheck choice out of college.
The resources of the White River National Forest are politicized enough without throwing in another private sector influence. The fee demo program is seen as a route toward privatization.
Eliminating the fee demo program can also be seen as a route toward privatization: Once this avenue of funds is deleted, these agencies may find themselves even more desperate to find a way to do their jobs.
There are no easy answers. The Blue River Group of the Sierra Club is sponsoring a forum on this topic 7 p.m. Thursday at the Frisco Town Hall.
Bring your questions to Forest Service officials, Rep. Mark Udall’s senior policy analyst, Doug Young, Currie Craven of Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness and Tom Phillips and Robert Funkhouser with the Western Slope No Fee Coalition.
Speakers will talk about the issue from a variety of perspectives. The more you learn about this issue, the more confusing and convoluted it becomes.
Karn Stiegelmeier writes from her home in Silverthorne. She is a member of the Blue River Group of the Sierra Club.
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