Environmentalists, the criticism goes, are naive about economics. I think that's generous.


Most of us in the movement work for substandard wages because we believe in the cause. Even worse, we expect others to make similar sacrifices, preserving rivers, forests and wildlife regardless of the consequences to struggling families or communities.


That's one reason why environmentalists are often distrusted and vilified in the rural West. It's also why we miss major business trends, such as the leveraged buyouts followed by immediate liquidation of private old-growth forests in California and Oregon in the 1980s.


These days, hungry to correct past errors and to put Adam Smith's invisible hand to work for us for a change, environmental organizations are toying with new economic strategies to protect nature on private property. That trend is spilling over to public land. Some believe that charging fees to use public lands will generate money, and therefore power, to influence federal land management in favor of recreation and the environment.


It's an enticing thought. Funding cuts have created a backlog in needed maintenance of trails and recreation facilities on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. The National Park Service needs billions to repair trails, bridges, roads and historic sites. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deficit in the billions in the effort to save endangered species.


And it would be nice to counter the economic might of extractive industries. Even a paltry $1 a person a day fee would enable the nation's millions of hikers and birdwatchers to compete with logging companies for use of national forests. Instead of appealing endless timber sales, citizens could just pay more to look at the trees than loggers are willing to pay to cut them.


In a perfect world, user fees might work as intended. But we live in a political world, and an imperfect one at that. User fees in the real world look to me like little more than the old "bait and switch."


Ignore for a moment that the so-called recreation subsidies pale before the cost of building roads for the timber industry or before the revenues lost by giving away gold and other minerals under the 1872 Mining Law. Ignore also that most existing environmental problems have been caused not by recreationists, but by loggers, utilities, miners, ranchers and motorized vehicle users.


Instead, ask if user fees will be used as advertised: to supplement agency budgets and reduce the backlog of environmental and trail projects. Once fees are widespread and accepted, how do we know that appropriations to federal land-management agencies won't be cut again? In the 104th Congress, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, introduced a failed bill to do exactly that. Democrats are not immune either. Forest Service Director of Recreation Lyle Laverty recently revealed that Clinton's Office of Management and Budget is already modeling ways to use recreation fees to offset budget deficits.


As for the argument that user fees would buy a seat at the table, environmentalists already have one, thanks to decades of grassroots political organizing. Take, for example, the BLM's new Resource Advisory Councils - which are made up of two environmentalists, plus people from ranching, recreation, mining, local government and the public at large. The RACs debate and guide the agency on all resource decisions, from grazing reform to oil and gas leasing in proposed wilderness areas.


The RACs work because we have political balance - everybody has an equal voice. Converting to an economic system would eliminate that parity, and could put every seat at the table up for sale to the highest bidder.


Introducing the profit motive to natural resource management would likely be fatal. Public-land agencies would face inexorable pressure to generate cash and maintain budgets, not to protect and care for the land. Big money would dominate.


Let's also not ignore what the new fees will feel like in a county like mine "Delta County - the second poorest in Colorado. The proposed fee of $5 per person per day to enter the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Study Area represents an outrageous new expense for local people. A once free three-day fishing trip for a family of four would jump to $60.


The net gain to the BLM, about $15,000 a year according to draft figures, may also introduce more problems than it solves. What happens if the jet skier and off-road driving crowd are willing to pay more for the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness than anglers and kayakers?


As Edward Abbey told us: recreation and tourism are industries, not a social movement. By instituting fees, we may trade one problem for another, perhaps greater, threat to the West. n





Former HCN staffer Steve Hinchman is the executive director of the nonprofit Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, based in Paonia, Colorado.