It's time to pay in proportion to our impacts
The real essence of the debate is that some fat guy in a quad runner with a case of Bud Lite, a carton of Marlboros, and an AR15 is paying exactly the same to run roughshod over the land as I am to run over it ... uh ... soft-shod with my ultralight backpacking gear. The obvious solution is to make users pay in proportion to their impact.
The BLM and Forest Service already have a model in place: The AUM, or Animal Unit Month. That’s the forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, or one horse, or five sheep or goats, for one month. We could open all public lands to recreationists, and fund programs for them, too, if we use fees based on Land Use Unit Days.
A foot traveler for a day would be one LUUD, provided he isn’t bolting a climb. Add an animal, skis, or a bike for another five LUUDs. Five hundred LUUDS seems fair for the guy on the quad. Motor homes would be assessed 100 LUUDs per foot, helicopters should be about 25,000, and a tank battalion on maneuvers or a timber sale would add up to at least a few million LUUDs.
The LUUD rate could float by both condition and location. A premium area like Yosemite would be rated at $5 per LUUD, while the country around Denio Junction, Nev., would be worth about 15 cents. Profits would be cycled back into the program, buying land to create wildlife corridors between federal lands and acquiring water rights to ensure some streams actually have water in them. To be fair, we could buy an abandoned strip mine or two for the motorheads. Maybe pick up a retired Air Force base for the RV crowd to park on for cheap, since they seem to favor pavement.
We could also keep a few areas as true wilderness, limiting access to people who are buck-naked, or with at most a loincloth, digging stick, gourd canteen and flint blade. For such undomesticated recreation, there would be no charge to get in. These users would probably get along pretty well, too, because when you shuck your stuff, a lot of attitude goes with it.