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Know the West

It's time for the public to pay up

 

Throughout the West, the forests are alive with the sound of bellyaching.

This time it's not loggers or ranchers who are at war with federal land-management policies, but rather backpackers, birdwatchers and anglers. They want federal lands managed more for recreation and wildlife, but they aren't willing to pay for it.

Take, for example, the beautiful Hyalite Canyon south of Bozeman, Mont., which is one of the most heavily used recreation areas in the state. The Forest Service wants to log the area and hearings have been packed. Recreationists and environmentalists argue that the sale makes neither environmental nor economic sense. They point out that the U.S. Forest Service loses 50 cents for every dollar it spends on timber management in Montana.

At the same time, recreationists want to continue their free lunch. It doesn't cost a penny to take the family hiking in a national forest. And national parks such as Yellowstone cost only $20 per carload for a week-long visit. No wonder the federal government is experimenting with fee demonstration programs intended to raise badly needed revenues for parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal lands.

If recreational users want smaller clearcuts, less mining and fewer cows on federal lands, they must learn a basic lesson of economics: "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

As it is now, commodity users call the tune on federal lands because they are the ones who pay nearly all of the fees. In 1996, the Forest Service and the BLM combined received just 2.3 percent of their total revenues from recreational user fees, with the remainder coming almost solely from timber, grazing and mining. While the Park Service receives nearly all of its revenues from recreational user fees, these fees cover only 7.5 percent of its budget. As a result, the agency must bow to the whims of Congress to secure its funding.

The fees the Park Service collects don't even make it to the fund-starved parks, but go directly to the federal Treasury. That leads to perverse incentives. Yellowstone National Park, for example, closed two museums and the popular Norris campground in 1996 in order to "save" $70,000, yet the campground alone earned $116,000 annually. Because that money went directly to the treasury, officials had no incentive to keep this profitable center open, and the public lost.

The Gallatin National Forest in Montana offers a good example of what could happen if recreationists were to ante up. In 1995, receipts from logging and recreation were approximately equal at about $400,000. The big difference was that the Forest Service kept 90 percent of the timber revenues but almost nothing from recreation. If the Gallatin National Forest had charged and kept $1 for each of its 4.7 million recreational visitors, revenues from recreation would have been an order of magnitude greater than timber receipts. This would surely cause forest managers to think twice about logging in prime recreational areas.

Some argue that we already pay for our use of public lands through taxes. Well, so do the logging companies and ranchers who use the federal estate, but they pay fees as well.

Also, those of us who pay nothing to hike in national forests or pay trivial fees to tour national parks are being subsidized by those who never set foot on the millions of acres of wild land that belong to the public. By making recreational users foot more of the bill through higher fees, we are removing a tax burden from individuals who do not use public lands. And many of these people do not use public lands because they cannot afford to get to them.

Recreational fees would give management agencies an incentive to trade off commodity uses in favor of recreation. A share of user fees, for example, could be earmarked to restore endangered species habitat on public lands or even to lease habitat on private lands.

Inevitably, fiscal constraints are going to force more fee experiments. Environmental and recreation groups should embrace them. If they do, they will eventually call the tune on federal land use.

Terry L. Anderson is executive director of Political Economy Research Center, a research institute in Bozeman, Montana.