The debate over whether people should pay to play on public lands is heating up once again. The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, created by Congress in 1996, requires people to pay a user fee to visit certain forests, parks or deserts (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee). Although it is due to expire by this time next year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in June to extend the temporary program to 2006. The U.S. Senate, however, excluded the issue from the appropriations bill.
The Senate's reluctance to extend the program "points to a growing concern on Capitol Hill," says Sean Conway, a spokesman for Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo. An increasing number of Western senators like Allard are tuning in to protesters who say the federal agencies should be funded by Congress, not by user fees (HCN, 8/27/01: Four-wheelin' for fee).
While some critics hope the political winds are changing, longtime fee demo opponent Scott Silver warns that many senators are simply posturing. Silver predicts that a House-Senate conference committee, scheduled to convene in mid-September, will retain the program, which is strongly supported by the public-lands agencies.
"What's probably going to happen is a 'win-win'," says Silver. "Instead of extending the program for four years, they'll extend it for one." Disgruntled with Congress, many activists are turning to the courts. Currently there are a few cases in which protesters argue that the fee demo program is illegal.