The land is still public, but it's no longer free

  • Cartoon: Public use fees

  • Skip Edwards

    Peter Chilson
  • Cartoon: Spectacular view 25 cents per minute

    Greg Siple
  • Barbara Sutteer

    Zig Jackson

Skip Edwards sits at one end of a long table, looking like a criminal facing a parole board. He argues passionately before nine stern faces. "We are taking the soul out of the reason for public lands," he says. "We are losing our freedom to roam our open spaces, for a pittance to balance the national budget." But Edwards' listeners, at a Sept. 27 meeting of the Colorado Environmental Coalition in Durango, Colo., don't know what to think. They make vague comments; some drift away.

Edwards, a river guide and seasonal river ranger with the Bureau of Land Management in Montrose, Colo., insists that the federal government's Recreational Fee Demonstration Program - launched nationwide this past winter and summer in national parks, national forests, and BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recreational areas - defiles the "American spirit."

Under the fee program, it now costs $20 to drive into Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park and another $20 if you want to camp in the backcountry, plus a $4 impact fee for every night you spend. To see Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington state, the Forest Service is asking $8 a person. And at Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, after paying the $10 entry fee, you'll need another $1.35 if you want to go on an interpretive walk with a ranger.

Edwards says the fees push land management back to the days of old Europe, when travelers had to pay tolls to enter the king's forest. But major environmental groups have paid little attention to this issue and the public has paid even less. It's easy enough to get riled up about shooting buffalo in Yellowstone, but when it comes to dropping a few bucks to hike in a national forest or raft a river, few people seem to care.

Edwards fears that apathy will allow the government to raise fees until even a day-hike becomes unaffordable to most people. At that point, he says, the public lands will no longer be public. He points to the Grand Canyon, where it costs $100 just to get on a river-trip waiting list.

Such charges, Edwards argues, are unnecessary. The Forest Service budget alone is $3 billion and according to the Government Accounting Office, the agency wastes $100 million a year. "(The agencies) have the money," Edwards says. "They just aren't using it right. They aren't prioritizing. Every private citizen should have the right to access public lands. We pay taxes and that's what our taxes should go for ... a national right."

At the table, Edwards' listeners nod and agree that fees can be annoying and the public should not let them get out of hand. But still, say a few, $20 a car for a seven-day pass to Yellowstone is a bargain, and as long as the money stays in the park, well, big deal. One skeptic shrugs and asks Edwards, "What do you propose we do? Boycott the public lands?"

"Organize," Edwards replies.

Paying to play

Last December, Congress allowed land-management agencies to set up a three-year experimental fee system at more than 200 sites around the country. Agencies are implementing the law by raising existing fees in some places, while elsewhere they are collecting fees for the first time - for boating, hiking, camping on federal land, or just taking a scenic drive. The critical difference is that more of the money will remain on-site.

Campground fees have been common for years. Fishing enthusiasts and hunters have been paying license fees for decades, and national parks have charged entrance fees since 1908. But up to this point, all the fee money had been sent back to the federal Treasury for Congress to use as it pleased.

David Barna, National Park Service spokesman, says that while the money raised from the new program is a tiny fraction of his agency's budget, it provides "discretionary income" which agencies can spend on their nearly $8 billion backlog of repair and maintenance of existing buildings and trails.

Finally, by law Congress has agreed not to use fees as reason to cut agency budgets. Also, the agencies must use the fee money for maintenance and repair on existing facilities, not on building new ones. This requirement allayed one of the biggest initial fears among agency officials and politicians - that the money would be used to build new facilities, which would create greater demand and greater cost down the road.

"It's really exciting," Barna says. "We have been pressing (Congress) hard to give us flexibility." Park Service officials projected the program would generate $52 million by the end of year, but they've revised the estimate down to $42 million. Officials blamed last winter's floods that closed California's Yosemite National Park for months. The Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the BLM - who each have fewer sites in the program than the Park Service - are hoping to pull in a combined $14 million annually.

Right off the top, the agencies will take 15 percent to pay the cost of collecting the fees. Then, in areas where fees are already in place, officials must send to the federal Treasury all the fee money collected up to the 1995 level; they get to keep 80 to 100 percent after that.

The fee program is rooted in a struggle between politicians and agency officials over how to keep budgets in pace with inflation, with deteriorating facilities, and the pressure of more and more tourists.

So Congress authorized the program to satisfy two needs: its budget-balancing interests and the unmet needs of the agencies. On both sides there are high hopes this will pave the way for a permanent system of new revenue. It's also, agency officials say, a test, a way to determine public reaction and to see how efficiently the agencies can collect the money and then use it.

To evaluate the test, the agencies must audit themselves every year of the program and report back to the House Appropriations Committee. At the end, Congress and the agencies will decide whether to drop the program, or adjust it.

"This is a better way for (recreational areas) to keep up with the needs of visitors, than to keep appropriating money," says Dan Smith, spokesman for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who helped develop the fee program.

Still, the money gap is huge. The National Park Service has a $1.5 billion budget; in constant dollars, the agency had $220 million more to spend in 1983 than it has today. And the Republican Congress that took power in 1994 shows little enthusiasm for funding national parks or national forest wilderness areas. Agencies have been steadily cutting staff, canceling scientific research and skimping on basic improvement and maintenance projects.

The Park Service alone faces a repair backlog of $6.5 billion. Every year, says spokesman Barna, the agency falls farther behind. The Forest Service, with its $3 billion budget, has a $1 billion maintenance backlog, while the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service face similar situations.

To relieve the pressure, both elected officials and the agencies have looked for other ways to close the gap. Volunteer groups help maintain trails and campgrounds for free. Congress came close to raising the concessionaires' fees in 1996, but then pulled back. A trial suggestion raised last year about corporate sponsors went over like a lead balloon.

Yet as budgets have shrunk, visits to outdoor America have soared. Grand Canyon now receives 5 million people a year, compared to 2 million in 1970. Visits to Forest Service recreation sites nationwide last year topped 829 million, the highest number ever.

David Bull, district ranger at the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area that straddles the Utah-Wyoming border, says he supports the fees "absolutely." Bull's management budget fell from $2.5 million in 1994 to just $1 million this year to handle 2 million visitors a year. "I'm sitting here in the manager's chair, thinking what am I gonna do to come up with the bucks to do what's gotta be done," says Bull. "Facilities are falling apart."

In New Mexico, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, one of the Park Service's smallest facilities, officials are projecting the user fees will bring in $288,000 over three years. The staff here has allocated $185,000 to repair restrooms and make them handicapped accessible. They will spend the rest on renovating the visitors' center auditorium, improving cultural exhibits along roads and repairing waterlines. "That money is going to be very welcome here," says chief ranger Rory Gauthier.

A disjointed opposition

Criticism of user fees has been muted and disorganized - a few complaints at fee stations, a political cartoon here, an editorial or letter there. "I cannot support," wrote a reader in a March letter to the Idaho Mountain Express, "any idea of charging people to wander in their forests, to dangle their hands in a mountain stream ..."

In Seattle, The Mountaineers, a group representing Washington state hikers and climbers, has complained to the Forest Service about its $15 fee to climb Mount St. Helens. "It targets climbers unfairly," says spokeswoman Brooke Drury.

Some critics also ask why users should have to pay when an agency like the Forest Service subsidizes the timber industry through road construction, law enforcement, and scientific support. But Greg Super, a Forest Service recreational economist, says, "We've been providing below-cost recreation, too." And agency officials across the board argue that user fees, when compared to the overall cost of a vacation or recreational outing, add up to very little.

Take the entrance fee at a national park, says Barna of the Park Service. "The parks, like Grand Canyon, that have big fees now, tend to be in rural areas and cost a lot of money to get to. So the $20 to get into the park is almost insignificant compared to the rest of the trip."

But the Forest Service has drawn a lot of fire for proposing a $2 entrance fee to Sabino Canyon in the Coronado National Forest outside Tuscon. The agency has also started collecting a $5 per vehicle user fee at the base of the Catalina Highway, which accesses the Santa Catalina Mountains. In a letter to the agency, Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain said the idea amounted to "duplication of fee payments." Officials will decide on the issue later this month.

But so far, agency officials around the country say visitors generally accept the fees once they learn their money stays in the place. If there is controversy in some areas, "That's one reason why it's a demonstration project," explains Smith, Utah Rep. Hansen's spokesman.

Meanwhile, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Grand Canyon Trust have yet to take a clear position on the fee program. The groups say they want to see how things work out first. Only the National Parks and Conservation Association has broadly supported the program. And Brad Ack, director of the Grand Canyon Trust, says he finds it hard to argue against fees.

"If we don't pay (for management of the lands), then it won't get paid for," Ack says. "That's the cold, sad reality."

A little entrepreneurial spirit in federal agencies may also not be such a bad thing. For decades, says Randal O'Toole, a forest economist and vocal supporter of user fees, the government has been managing land for ranchers and loggers, and collecting fees from them. The result, he says, is that the agencies have leaned toward the interests of industries. So why not manage for hikers, boaters, motorists and climbers, and charge them, too?

"I believe in multiple use," O'Toole says, "and (user fees) will regulate all the uses more evenly." In the process, he explains, the agencies might even become more sensitive to the needs of the recreational constituency. Yet O'Toole, despite his free-market leanings, is cautious, pointing out that agencies might become too free with fee money, putting in new campgrounds, trails and roads at the expense of wilderness.

User fees: The unknown impacts

Here, inside the gray areas of the user-fee program, people begin to worry. If we make fees a permanent part of land management, how far will it go? What will the money be used for and to what extent will lower-income groups and minorities be excluded from recreational lands where visitors are mostly middle to upper-middle class whites? Even David Bull, the district ranger at Flaming Gorge, acknowledges that as fees go up, the gorge "could become a resort for the rich."

But agency officials insist that if costs cut people out, they'll lower some fees and drop others, and that the law forbids them from building the new facilities that many fear would intensify visitor demand. The Park Service, for its part, has hired recreational sociologists to study the demographics of its user-fee program. They'll begin releasing their findings in six months. Other agencies are gathering data from visitors through focus groups, on-the-spot interviews and written surveys.

"Our intent would not be to exclude anybody," says Steve Deitemeyer, Forest Service regional recreation officer in Denver. "But with the budget situation, we just don't know of any other way."

Will groups unify over user fees?

Organized opposition to user fees may not exist now, but Skip Edwards hopes that over the course of the demonstration program, people will wake up. "Everyone I talk to thinks the fees are a good thing," he says, "but when they listen to larger arguments, their eyes open up." Edwards hopes to see a broad opposition, a tangle of odd partnerships: boating groups, hikers, birders, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, climbers, scientists and hunters, even scattered members of the National Rifle Association.

For the moment, however, the NRA and People For the West are, like their counterparts in the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, reserving judgment. "We have not gotten a single complaint from hunters," says Susan Lamson, who handles natural resource and conservation issues for the NRA in Washington, D.C. "We want to see how this shakes out."

Peter Chilson is associate editor of High Country News.

Note: the following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- At Mount St. Helens fees go dangerously high

- No cheap thrills in the Grand Canyon

- Guy Clark: Fees draw fire from two public-land users

- Barbara Sutteer: Fees draw fire from two public-land users

You can call ...
* Activist Skip Edwards, 970/921-3034;
* NPS spokesman David Barna, 202/208-6843;
* BLM public affairs officer Jeff Krause, 202/452-5127;
* U.S. Forest Service budget official Linda Feldman, 202/205-1668;
* Spokesman Dan Smith at Rep. Jim Hansen's office, 202/225-0453.

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