Agencies struggle toward a unified public-lands pass

After a clamorous seven-year test, the Bush administration wants to expand and make permanent the federal government's program of charging user fees for recreation on public lands. Prodded by Congress, officials at the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service are scrambling to draft legislation for a single, nationwide recreation pass for all U.S. public lands. The new system would replace the Recreation Fee Demonstration, or "fee demo," program first created by Congress in 1996 and extended twice by rider, now until 2004 (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee).


"The Forest Service feels that we have tested enough," says Teri Cleeland, Forest Service national fee program leader in Washington, D.C. "We've learned a lot, and it's time for the American people to learn what a permanent program would look like."


But even as the agencies move rapidly toward a unified pass proposal, officials admit they're far from a workable plan. That gives opponents, both in and out of Congress, some hope that they can stymie the effort, despite its momentum.


"If the Forest Service is going to make (fees) work," says Bob Dale of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, "they're going to have to do it with a lot more thought and care than what's gone into the fee demo program."


Circling the wagons

Between 1997 and 2001, the agencies collected $600 million in fees. Last year, fee demo grossed $126.2 million for the Park Service; $35.3 million for the Forest Service; $7.6 million for the BLM; and $3.7 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agencies are required to spend 80 percent of fee revenues, minus administrative costs, at the place where they were collected, rather than send the money to Washington.


Opponents of fee demo long have argued that the program is a form of double taxation, since federal tax dollars already support management of the public lands. Supporters point to a maintenance backlog of $4.9 billion at the Park Service and $800 million at the Forest Service, and the absence of sufficient congressional funding as a reason the public should pay to play.


That line of reasoning resonates with the Bush administration, which this spring created the Recreation Fee Leadership Council to draft legislation that would make the user-fee program permanent. The council, made up of 16 top-level federal officials representing the four lands agencies and the Bureau of Reclamation, is co-chaired by Mark Rey, undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, and Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the Department of Interior.


No firm decisions have been made, but the council is working from a draft "blueprint" produced in April by Forest Service Deputy Chief Tom L. Thompson. The blueprint says the government would not charge for "general access" to national forests; driving or walking through; parking at scenic overlooks and pullouts; and dispersed camping or other low-impact recreation.


The agencies would, however, charge for parking at trailheads; entrance to visitors' centers; use of trailhead, boating and swimming facilities; national recreation areas; national monuments; and visits to "concentrated-use areas" where heavy traffic takes a toll on the environment.


The pass program under consideration includes annual national, regional, statewide and single-forest passes, along with single-use fees. Officials working on the new program say they don't know yet how much the passes will cost. Golden Eagle passes currently cost $65.


"What we would really like to do nationally is have a national parks and public lands pass," says Lee Larson, senior outdoor recreation specialist for permits and fees at the national BLM office, "not just the Forest Service and Park Service, but for everyone (together)."


But, adds Larson, "It's not a public lands pass in the sense of getting on public lands. It's only for areas where there's services."


Even if they buy the new passes, visitors may pay extra charges - as they do now - to use developed camp sites and boat launches. Last November, the General Accounting Office criticized federal agencies for their "overlapping and inconsistent" implementation of user fees; observed that managers had not been given clear direction on what they were supposed to accomplish with the fee demo program; and concluded that despite years of testing, the agencies still have not proven "what types of fees and fee collection practices work best."


It's also far from clear how much money the proposed permanent fee program might generate, or how that money would be split up. Cleeland says the Forest Service has hired the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to make that calculation but has been unable to come up with a number because "the questions we ask of our data are not the same questions that Pricewaterhouse would have asked."


Revenue for passes that are valid at more than one locale would be divided up using a formula based both on creating incentives to sell passes, and getting the money to roughly correspond with the level of use. That formula, however, has yet to be devised.


"One pass with one simple fee would be a lot better, but that's not what we're getting," says Jason Robertson, access director for American Whitewater. "What we're getting is one fee for parking and access, but then they're talking about this raft of whole other fees for such activities as camping and boating.


"The whole purpose of the fee program is being lost in this discussion. We're moving from fees for mitigation toward fees for fees' sake, fees for revenue collection."

Race against the clock

Concerns like Robertson's have moderated somewhat the stance of longtime user fee champion Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. In a Jan. 25 letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, McInnis reiterated his support for fees, but cautioned that money needs to be spent on the ground and the program subject to reauthorization by Congress every five years.


Nonetheless, McInnis is still clearly among user fees' staunchest advocates. Speaking in Montrose, Colo., on May 4, McInnis said that fee demo may come to an end, but added, "We need to tax those users. We need those fees."


Josh Penry, staff director of the McInnis-led forests subcommittee, says legislation to create a national fee program is likely to be introduced this year. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., has already introduced legislation to make the fee program permanent for the National Park Service and to permit that agency to share revenues with state - although not federal - agencies on a reciprocal basis if they honor each other's passes.


The administration is racing to take advantage of the support of House Resources Committee Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and House Appropriations Committee chair Joe Skeen, R-N.M., both of whom are retiring this fall.


But whether permanent fee legislation will move through Congress in this session is questionable, given that the House will recess in fewer than three months, and representatives are increasingly focused on the fall campaign.


Meanwhile, fee opponents are making their voices heard. On May 8, the Colorado State Legislature passed a resolution asking Congress to fully fund the federal lands agencies rather than charge for recreation. The Oregon, California and New Hampshire Legislatures have passed similar resolutions. Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R, pushed by anti-fee Off-Road Vehicle organizations, has also announced his opposition to fees.


For its part, the Forest Service plans to start revising its fee program this summer to create more consistency between forests and to identify all sites where fees can and should be charged, says Cleeland. But, she adds, "The devil is in the details."


Hal Clifford contributes regularly to High Country News and Writers on the Range from Telluride, Colorado.




YOU CAN CONTACT ...
  • Jason Robertson, American Whitewater, 301/589-9453;

  • Teri Cleeland, U.S. Forest Service, 202/205-1169, www.fs.fed.us/recreation/fee_demo/fee_intro.shtml;

  • Lee Larson, BLM, 202/452-5168;

  • Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., 202/225-4761.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Hal Clifford