Critics say fees take the ‘public’ out of the public lands

The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, or "fee demo," has raised a ruckus in the West since its 1996 debut, when the public started "paying to play" on federal lands. Recreation fees — charged for access to hiking trails, visitor centers and other spots — have been authorized for 400 sites managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The program is the brainchild of Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, R, who thought fees would help fix a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog on public lands. It has met emphatic opposition from a wide range of public-lands users, who argue that fees represent double taxation, turn land managers into profiteers, and allow private industry to make money from public lands. Nonetheless, fee demo has survived for eight years, extended every few years through "riders," language attached to unrelated bills in Congress. A rider passed in September extended the program until January 2006.

Now, Regula is pushing a bill that would make fee demo permanent, and extend fees to virtually all federal lands, including recreation areas operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. Visitors would have to purchase an "America the Beautiful Pass," costing between $85 and $100, that would cover "basic fees" for parking, visitor centers, restrooms and picnic tables. Amenities like camp sites and boat launches, as well as commercial tours and group events, would be extra. The bill would also increase penalties for people who refuse to pay — from the current $100 fine, to up to $5,000 and 6 months in jail.

But Regula’s bill flies in the face of mounting criticism of the program, including a bleak report from the investigative arm of Congress. "(The bill is) so far over the top on what is reasonable that it’s almost ludicrous," says Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a grassroots group based in western Colorado.

Privatizing the public lands

For some fee foes, Regula’s bill is most disturbing because it would turn the fee program over to "non-governmental entities," such as nonprofit groups and private contractors.

Already, critics say there is enormous pressure on land managers to bring in fee money, because Congress has starved them of funding. They say the fee program has turned public-land stewards into salesmen and developers. Bring in private industry to administer the program, they say, and you’ll see industry pushing an even stronger, profit-driven agenda, rather than looking out for the public’s best interest or the health of the land.

But Interior Department officials have voiced strong support for the provisions in Regula’s bill, and privatizing fee management fits in nicely with the Bush administration’s push to contract out agency jobs. Several agencies, including the Forest Service, the Park Service and the BLM, have already partnered with Reserve USA, a subsidiary of Ticketmaster, to offer online campground reservations. Gail van der Bie, recreation manager for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., says the company tags a $9 fee onto advance reservations for 33,000 Forest Service campsites nationwide.

But critics contend that privatization is a slippery slope. Soon, they say, rustic campgrounds will be turned into upscale RV parks. "We’re going to see recreation become an extractive industry," says Jon Orlando of the Arizona NoFee Coalition. "That’s the threat."

Already, there are signs of this starting. A young Boise firm, NomadISP, has begun offering high-speed Internet access to campgrounds via satellites. CEO Kelly Hogan says Internet access is becoming highly desirable for laptop-toting recreationists. The service has been tested in 25 Forest Service campgrounds in the Northwest, and Hogan says orders are starting to come in. "In the next two years, if campsites and campgrounds don’t install it, they’ll lose business," he says.

Are the agencies ready for a pony?

The fee demo debate heated up last spring, when the General Accounting Office released a damning report on the Forest Service’s management of the fee program. Longtime fee champion Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., ordered the report in response to criticism that agencies were squandering fee money on projects like the Amphitheater Campground near Ouray, Colo., which was renovated at a cost of $19,354 per campsite.

Of the $35 million in gross revenue the Forest Service reports from fee demo in 2001, the report finds that 43 percent went back into collecting fees and administering the program. And the Forest Service has no system for determining whether or not fee demo has helped solve the maintenance backlog. "The Forest Service has made little real progress in resolving its long-standing performance accountability problems and remains years away from implementing a credible performance accountability system," the report says.

"The GAO report crystallizes the inadequacies of this program," says Josh Penry, who was the staff director for the House Forests Subcommittee when the report was issued. "If there’s minimal value added on the ground, why go through the brain damage and continue to pursue a policy that creates dissent?"

Ironically, McInnis, who chaired the Forests Subcommittee, has reserved his criticism for the Forest Service. He supported the recent rider that extended the program for another two years, and insists that the program can be "fixed." Some believe that the GAO report may become just another argument that private industry can do a better job than public agencies.

But the Forest Service’s van der Bie says change is on the way. Her agency is collaborating with the Interior Department to streamline fees and make them more consistent. The Forest Service promises renewed vigilance in managing fee money, and says administering the fee program should cost no more than 25 percent of the money fees bring in.

Even with such reforms, critics oppose the push to make the fee program permanent. "If your kid can’t keep a goldfish alive," says Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, "you don’t buy them a pony."

Congress will likely pass a bill deciding the fate of fee demo this year.

The author is a former HCN intern.

Robert Funkhouser with the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, 802-867-2298

Gail van der Bie with the Forest Service, 202-205-1756

Rep. Ralph Regula 202-225-3876

Rep. Scott McInnis 202-225-4761