The latest 1,000-pound gorilla

  • Pudim

WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Good evening, sir and madam, Henri here, your concierge, representing 'All-Natural, Inc.,' the contract manager of Frogwart Hollow National Forest. Place Number 23 is reserved for your recreational vehicle, and there you will find posted our fee schedule for walks to the simulated waterfall, per-hour rates for fishing in the beautiful Cootahatchie River (extra charge for trout-chow), and the toll for our paved highway to the top of Mount Gargonzolla and 'The Peak,' our gourmet restaurant at the summit. We hope you enjoy your 'All-Natural Experience.' "
No, it hasn't come to that.

But there are folks around here with a vision, and while they would argue, justifiably, that this little scene is a burlesque of their vision, it heads that way.

The godfather of these visionaries is Derrick Crandall, the president of the American Recreation Coalition, the lobby for the motorized recreation community.

The ARC has been around for almost 20 years, but only in the last few has it become a potent force in Congress and the executive branch. Cabinet secretaries come to its gatherings. Committee chairmen prepare legislation with its staff. Congressmen hear from its members.

All that activity is here - inside the Beltway - but much of its impact is out there, where "outdoor recreation has rather quietly emerged as the dominant natural resource industry in many pockets of the West."

Those are the words of Doug Kenney, a research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado School of Law, who is hosting a three-day conference in June on the "promise and peril" of outdoor recreation.

Without formal announcement or an environmental impact statement, the $400 billion-a-year outdoor recreation business has surpassed logging, grazing and mining as the big moneymaker on Western public lands. In a speech last year, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said that of the $130 billion that the national forests will contribute to the economy in the year 2000, $98 billion will come from recreation.

Glickman made that speech to the Recreation Exchange, an arm of the American Recreation Coalition.

In the view of Colorado State University wildlife conservation professor Richard Knight, the West is about to make the same mistake all over again.

"For years we decided that the highest and best use of the land was logging, grazing and mining, because of money reasons," he said. "Now we're deciding outdoor recreation is the highest and best use - because of money reasons."

And in Knight's view, recreation, meaning people, represents the greater threat. "We're more numerous than chain saws and smarter than cows," he said.

In other words, the fight between the Old West and the New West may be passé even if it isn't quite over, replaced by conflict between two New Wests - the environmentalist New West of high-tech industry, nature-friendly recreation and resource conservation, vs. the entrepreneurial New West of high-tech (and profit-making) recreation on the public land.

That profit would go to ARC members, which helps explain the group's clout. Through trade associations, the coalition is supported by the major automobile, petroleum, and real estate development firms, as well as manufacturers of powerboats, snowmobiles, motorcycles and the hotel and resort chains which cater to their users.

The ARC was a major force behind the experimental "demonstration fee" which many hikers, hunters, fishermen and bird-watchers are going to pay again this summer, forking up cash to use public facilities heretofore financed entirely by taxation (HCN, 10/13/97).

Whatever else they may do, these fees will become increasingly important to cash-starved federal land managers, providing an incentive to build more fee-charging facilities.

Especially the most lucrative facilities. There are twice as many hikers, skiers and canoers as snowmobilers, RV operators, or powerboat users. But a campground makes more money from the RV, the trail operator can charge the snowmobiler more than the skier, the marina manager is happier to see a motorized boat putt-putting toward a dock than a canoe knifing through the water.

Not only will increased motorized recreation leave less land available for the quieter outdoor sports - hunting, angling, bird-watching, hiking, skiing - but the resource itself might be damaged by internal combustion engines and their wheels and treads.

Colorado State's Knight cited an article in the journal Bio-Science (Volume 46, pages 446-455), by Elizabeth Losos of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and four other scientists, which found that outdoor recreation was second only to water development projects in pushing species toward threatened or endangered status.

"They were surprised," he said. "They thought it would be logging."

The worst offenders, the study found, were off-road vehicles. But skiing, swimming and hiking also had an adverse effect on many threatened or endangered species.

So far, the mainstream environmental organizations have all but ignored the threat of outdoor recreation, leaving the fight against ARC to an energetic enviro-political gadfly from Bend, Ore., named Scott Silver. Silver is the leader, or perhaps the entirety, of an organization called Wild Wilderness, and he is on a crusade to stop "the trend toward commercialization, privatization and motorization of the public lands."

Not content merely to gripe, Silver has an action plan. "If you dare, engage in a little civil disobedience. Go hiking without a permit!" he urges, via the Internet. Even those who don't dare can display on their windshields the "No Trail Fee" sticker he has designed.

Not surprisingly, Derrick Crandall denies that his organization wants to convert the National Forests into a series of parking lots and off-road-vehicle trails. He points out that not all ARC members are in the motorized recreation business. Hiking associations belong to it, as do cross-country ski organizations and American Youth Hostels. "We represent virtually everyone involved in recreation," he said.

Crandall did not dispute that operators can charge more for developed facilities, though he thinks many of his members, especially private campground operators, would be happier if there were no recreational vehicle campsites on public lands at all. That way the RVs would all go to private campgrounds, leaving more room for tent hikers on public land.

Although ARC supports the Clinton administration's proposed moratorium on logging roads in national forests, Crandall said, it opposes closing and restoring the existing road network; it wants to use old logging roads for all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and snowmobiles.

ARC represents the gamut of outdoor recreationists, but it is the private, for-profit, mechanized businesses which dominate it. With Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, ARC is working toward creation of a National Recreation Lakes Program to "encourage maximum recreational enjoyment" on 2,100 federally managed artificial lakes.

On the face of it, that seems beneficial. But a plan to "maximize the potential of the upcoming ... study" of the lakes was drafted in the Chicago offices of the National Marine Manufacturers Association by "a dozen boating and fishing organizations," according to an industry press release.

A Marine Manufacturers Association document asserted that "One obvious option for the commission to explore is new partnership projects with the private sector - with companies that understand the recreation business and share the commitment of federal agencies to resource protection and quality visitor services. The commission will undoubtedly look at ski areas on national forests and concession operations in parks to develop some guidelines for partnership-based development at these lakes."

Whatever ARC's intentions may be, its policies seem likely to alter the use and the look of the public lands.

Jon Margolis covers lobbyists and other fauna in Washington, D.C., for High Country News.

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