Working class can't foot the bill

For some, it's a choice between recreation and a new pair of school shoes

  • Girl with sign, "Fees hurt the poor"

    Illustration by Diane Sylvain
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In the winter of 1997-'98, when Glacier National Park first started charging a winter entrance fee on weekends, gleeful park officials reported that they had collected $3,645. Buried at the bottom of ensuing news stories in local papers was the fact that passengers in about 100 cars, possibly 250 people, had refused to pay the fee and aborted their visits.

That worried Alan Watson, a social scientist with the federal Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Mont.

"Just to say we are successful by counting the revenue isn't enough," Watson said at the time. "We have to ask if fees are exclusionary. Are they changing the mix of our visitors, somehow? For instance, are we excluding people from the park because of income, race, sex? And will residents near the park stop using it regularly because of the fees?"

That's exactly what Watson began asking other social scientists across the country to look into. Many of their findings are published in the Sept./Oct. issue of the Journal of Leisure Research.

Probably the most telling report is by Thomas More, a Forest Service employee at the Northeastern Research Station in Burlington, Vt. In "A Functionalist Approach to User Fees," More argues that user fees won't much affect the wealthy upper class, or the lower class, since poor people seldom visit now.

"It will be among the working class - the people at the margin - where the impacts will weigh most heavily," he says.

"These people are neither poor, nor immobile. They do, however, live with constant economic and financial anxiety. These are the people who are most dependent on low-cost, public sector recreation; they are the ones who must decide between spending $15 for an extra night's camping or putting it toward a new pair of school shoes. And there are lots of them."

A reduction in visitors would certainly take care of our park system's overcrowding problems. That's a plus for the wealthy vacationer, says More, but not necessarily good for America's wildlands. What happens when the majority of working Americans realize they have been shut out of the great outdoors? Why should they care any longer about conserving wildlife habitat if they can't get in to see the animals? Why should they care about closing a scenic area to mining or timber harvesting?

"Some people may be willing to pay to preserve an expensive, exclusive country club opportunity," More concludes. "On the other hand, many more people might reject such an opportunity."

Other reports in the journal support More's argument. At one national forest site in Arizona, researchers found that one-half of the respondents had chosen to visit the site because it was free. One-third of the visitors had redirected their visit to the free site because of a fee program at their preferred destination.

A study at Desolation Wilderness in California found "general support for wilderness use fees, but fees are judged to be less appropriate for wilderness than for developed recreation facilities and services." The article says experienced wilderness users and local residents were less supportive of fees than novices and visitors.

Another study found "general support for wilderness use fees with strongest support for restoration of human-damaged sites, litter removal, and related information provision." Wilderness users, more than front-country visitors, supported using the fees to maintain existing trails and facilities, rather than building new ones.

The agencies point to their own university-led studies that show 80 to 85 percent approval ratings for the new fees. But almost without exception, these surveys are done inside fee areas, on people who have already paid to get in. They leave out people who couldn't afford to pay, or chose to go elsewhere where there was no charge.

Still, concerns about fees cutting people out of the public lands don't faze Lee Larson, a senior outdoor recreation specialist with the BLM in Washington, D.C. He says free days, special school programs and volunteer opportunities keep public lands open to anyone who can afford to get to them.

"For me, it's a deal - for four bucks a day, or five bucks a carload. I mean, come on," he says. "We spend more on a beer. My health club costs more."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.