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