What a foggy-headed diatribe

  Dear HCN,

What a disappointment to see yet another foggy-headed front-page diatribe against recreation fees on federal lands (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee). Instead of trying to shed new light on the issue and search for solutions, the story seemed to be a mirror image of a lead story last year that took a completely biased and unsophisticated approach to a very important issue.

In my view as an active recreationist and McLeod-wielding trails advocate, recreation fees have created a new income source for on-the-ground improvements that must be made to address environmental impacts, public health and safety concerns.

Let's remember: You don't get something for nothing. Duh.

Yet your story whipsaws readers by complaining that recreation fees aren't raising enough dollars to handle the growing throngs of visitors, and then you try to find someone to complain that they can't afford to pay $5 so they went somewhere else. So, let's get the logic straight. Fees are dumb because they're not raising enough money, but they're bad because they're walling out the public. So fees are dumb. End of story. Shallow treatment.

If someone can't afford a $5 fee, I don't think they'd own a car, or have enough leisure time to consider visiting a park, as opposed to finding something to eat. Let's get real.

The true issue here is one of neglect. Our forests, parks and BLM lands are in a state of neglect. Yet, most states are courting tourists big-time and the Forest Service has a major recreation marketing program called "Visit Us!'

Well, the people are coming. But what do they find? In Idaho, they're going to go for a hike in the national forest and discover that about one mile into the backcountry, the trail flat disappears. Maybe they'll try to follow it a ways, and fail to find it, and get lost. If they're inexperienced, they're going to spend an ugly night in the woods and nearly freeze to death.

When I see trails literally falling off or vanished from the grid, it makes me so angry. I think of the CCC crews and backcountry rangers who built those trails. A substantial public investment was made to create a vast trail network on national forest lands. Lack of money (no trail crews) at the ground level is causing trails to erode, get brushed over and disappear from lack of maintenance.

Poorly maintained campsites and river launch/takeout sites inevitably have toilet paper strewn about due to the lack of an outhouse.

Obviously, recreation fees were proposed as a stop-gap measure to remedy some of those problems. But fees will never be high enough to cover all of the recreation expenses involved in our national parks, forests and desert lands. That's obvious.

So what's the solution? Where's the vision in Congress? Where's the vision in the White House? Why didn't the reporter inquire? How are the people in charge going to handle this mess?

Right now, Congress is trying to "punish" the Forest Service for the Clinton roadless area initiative by starving the agency with ridiculously low budgets. Recreation fee sites will survive, but anyplace that doesn't charge fees is going to go into further decline.

Savvy district rangers must find ways to do more with less. They work with volunteers to rebuild trails, develop campsites and create boat-launch sites. They may turn some of these areas into fee sites so they have a flow of income to maintain the improvements. They may accept private or corporate donations. I don't see how they have any other choice.

HCN's article seems to suggest that the solution is to bury your head in the sand and whine mightily.

I think we need a new vision for caring for our public lands in the 21st century. Fees will be part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution. At this most affluent time in our nation's history, can't our elected servants devise a way to protect and preserve the places we hold dear? In my mind, it should be a major public priority.

Stephen Stuebner
Boise, Idaho

The writer is a journalist, past president of the Idaho Trails Council and author of four guidebooks on Idaho trails.

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