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Something's rotten in the state of user fees

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I am shocked when I read letters like Linda Knowlton’s, supporting recreation user fees. The greatest period of public-land recreation-related infrastructure development in the United States occurred during and just after the Great Depression, when the nation was at its poorest. Now that we have experienced huge growth in the GDP and in the number of taxpayers, and very little change in the public land base of the Lower 48 states, the government claims it cannot afford to maintain trails your great-grandfather built when he was in the CCC. Smell something?

Recreation fees serve two ideological objectives of the political right: privatization of public resources and “flattening” the federal tax structure. Conservatives view user fees (regressive by definition) as an effective way to reduce progressive taxes such as the inheritance tax and federal income tax. The strategy has been successful.

While the public is asked to pay a fee to use their own public resources, commercial users have received a constant stream of sweetheart deals, bargain-basement leases, direct subsidies, tax write-offs, tax breaks and other perquisites.

Why not charge the public $1,000 per day for a Selway River permit (after all, people pay those rates for luxury hotel suites)? What would be a fair price for a Desolation Wilderness permit? Why stop at natural resources? Instead of enlarging the library, just charge a hundred bucks for a card and eliminate the riffraff. That’s the way it is with government fees. No natural market forces control government monopolies.

When I was young and had time but no money, I was fortunate to hike, climb, run rivers, fish and hunt on public lands that were fee-free. We thought we earned the right to the freedom of the hills with our sweat, daring and courage. Now, government insists what we thought was a right is a revocable privilege — requiring crossing bureaucrats’ palms with big green.

Don Tryon Addy, Washington

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