One of the people you interviewed for the fee demo feature article (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee), Gary Guenther, asked, "Where's the money going?" I can provide a partial answer to that question, and it's mind-boggling.
The river activist group Riverhawks and the Northwest Rafters Association have conducted an extensive audit of the Rogue River fee demo program using the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The program sounded good initially. The 1997 Rogue River Business Plan listed a backlog of needed maintenance totaling $300,000 along the Rogue. The agency promised fee money would be used "for repair and maintenance, interpretation, signage, habitat or facility enhancement, resource conservation, and law enforcement relating to visitor services."
Instead, the BLM tried to use $127,000 in fee money to pay for a visitor center that no one wanted. The BLM immediately withdrew the funds when we pointed out language in the federal law authorizing fee demo that prohibited agencies from using the money on such buildings.
BLM also substituted fee funds into the salaries of employees in its river program office - at least $40,000 in 1998, with another $10,000 going to administrative overhead. Another $15,000 went to a video promoting tourism throughout southern Oregon. BLM also spent fee demo money on airline tickets and other travel expenses.
Meanwhile, on the Forest Service end of the Wild Rogue River, a number of river issues, conflicts, and violations remain unresolved. Forest Service officials have claimed there's "no money" for enforcement.
It's clearly a disaster. Fee demo constitutes a blindingly unregulated system of de facto taxation performed by untrained, relatively low-level government officials. Agencies like the Forest Service and BLM are given the singular responsibility to at once tax, collect and spend. Plus, they unilaterally determine how much tax to levy, where to spend it, and then get to police themselves with people from their own agency.
It's amazing! Even the IRS only performs one of these multiple functions. The lack of meaningful accountability and oversight, and no system of checks and balances, are crippling shortcomings of this program.
What we have, then, is a fee demo program spinning out of control, and missed opportunities to care for a beautiful river.
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