Last summer my partner Lynn and I did some backpacking in Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies, a couple of months after Canada instituted their backcountry usage fee of $5 per person per day.
After we got over the initial shock, and headed back into Radium Hot Springs to pull more cash out of a bank machine, we (grousing a little) realized the fee was needed for backcountry maintenance, and we were glad to pay it to help out the park; and besides it might be the wave of the future here in the USA, so we might as well get used to it. I used to think user fees for wilderness and other backcountry areas were a good idea. Now, after taking our trip, I'm not so sure.
Lynn and I are the sort of backpackers who strive for positive impact, if that's possible. We regularly haul out trash left by others, do spot repairs of trails, throw obstacles into switchback shortcuts and destroy extra fire rings at campsites, picking out the nasties to haul out with us. We're admittedly not fully evolved: I encourage Lynn to lead because I don't like bending down to pick up trash while I'm hiking and I know she will; she derives an atavistically perverse pleasure from the smell of wood smoke and sometimes I can't talk her out of building a fire below timberline, and neither one of us can hover above the ground quite yet. Still, we pride ourselves on our backcountry ethics.
Payment of the backcountry usage fee in Canada changed those ethics. We noticed a difference in our attitudes almost right away. We still picked up trash, but that was about it.
We walked right by all kinds of trail washouts, unauthorized fire rings and shortcuts needing repair. We'd paid for the upkeep of these trails. Let the rangers take care of it. After all, Mickey picks up the litter in Disneyland, right?
We realized that our willingness to spend a fair amount of our precious backpacking time cleaning up and repairing comes out of our sense of collective stewardship of, and responsibility for, the lands we travel through. Turning it into a commercial transaction by paying an access fee damaged that sense of stewardship. We felt our sense of responsibility had been purchased by the park, and taking care of the land thus became the duty of its paid attendants.
At least for us, bartering our labor to take care of the land instead of spending our cash gives us a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility. So now I don't know about this user-fee business. It seems to me that it might just serve to further spread the same kind of poisonous thinking that has screwed up the planet. People will pay the fee and come back whining about bad weather and trees across the trail, sounding like tourists whining that they were bored by Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Instead of user fees, I propose that backcountry maintenance be the joint responsibility of rangers and volunteer trail crews, with their expenses paid by a "public lands recovery tax" levied on the mining, timber and railroad companies. After ripping the public off for billions, it's the least they can do.
Since outfitters also make a profit from the use of public lands, they ought to pay something for the privilege, too. That way, the commodity-based relationship would be maintained by the people who get off on that kind of thing, and the rest of us can work on being good stewards.
David B. Marshall