Recreation fee startles locals


In July, radio talk show hosts in Tucson, Ariz., went after an unlikely target: forest ranger Tom Quinn. "They roasted me for a week," said Quinn, who works on the Coronado National Forest.

The reason for the fuss? The Forest Service wants to charge an entrance fee for the popular Mount Lemmon recreation area just outside Tucson.

But Quinn didn't initiate the change. Congress did. The 1996 omnibus appropriations act authorized a three-year pilot program that allows federal land-management agencies to use recreational user fees to supplement their shrinking budgets. At selected recreational areas, 80 percent of the revenues in excess of 1995's total will return directly to the site. Thus the program lends itself to areas that currently charge nothing.

The National Park Service has been cautious about implementing fees, but the Forest Service has been aggressive, with Chief Forester Jack Ward Thomas naming 47 demonstration projects on June 26.

A Senate oversight committee praised the Forest Service for quickly identifying the project sites, but some, including John McCain, R-Ariz., raised questions about the level of public involvement. In Tucson, where Thomas' action came as a surprise, it put the agency on the defensive.

The controversy reflects the heavy use of the Mount Lemmon recreation area. Annually, about 400,000 vehicles travel the main access road, the Catalina Highway, and the Forest Service can't keep up with maintenance. Starting in November, the agency will charge $4 per vehicle, the same as it costs to visit nearby Saguaro National Park.

Ranger Quinn guesses the charge would have to be $25 per person to make Mount Lemmon pay for itself.

Over the past month, as the agency has defended the entrance fee, Tucson seems to have warmed to the idea. "Most people agree in principle," Quinn said, "but some think the fee is too high." The headline for a favorable editorial in the Arizona Daily Star read: "$4 Not Bad for Nirvana."

* Jared Farmer, HCN intern

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