« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Fee demo on our public lands is a rip-off

  If there's a basic flaw in the government's Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, or "fee demo," it's that it represents a form of regressive taxes, or double taxation. We, the people, already pay taxes for the management of public lands, and now, under fee demo, we are required to pay again for their use.

That strikes me as unfair, conferring advantage to the wealthy and imposing disproportionate negative impact upon working people and lower-income persons.

Officials of the Forest Service and National Park Service claim fees are necessary to raise funds to protect natural resources. Consequently they place the burden on local administrators to serve as fee collectors and marketers of recreation as a commodity. Although stewardship of public lands, especially wilderness, often requires limitation of use, fee demo provides a powerful incentive for managers to avoid anything that will limit use. It's a bad incentive, thoroughly incompatible with principles of conservation.

Gifford Pinchot, forestry pioneer and public lands apostle, early in the last century repeatedly defined equality of opportunity for every citizen as the real object of laws and institutions. The rightful use and purpose of our natural resources, as he saw them, are to make all the people strong and well, able and wise, well taught, well fed, well clothed, full of knowledge and initiative, with equal opportunity for all and special privilege for none.

Public recreation, in fact, exists to enable people to participate who could not do so otherwise. But when agencies act like entrepreneurs seeking self-funding through fees, and low-income people are excluded, the public purpose "- the very reason for public ownership "- is defeated.

The fee demonstration program was approved by Congress in1996, as an experiment after lobbying by the American Recreation Coalition, an organization for the mechanized and mass recreation industry "- all eager to share in commercializing, motorizing and Disneyfying the public lands.

Yes, outdoor recreation spans a variety of interests, tastes and goals. Commercial resorts and campgrounds bring the conveniences of urban living into outdoor life away from home. Disneyland and other profit-making theme parks provide mass entertainment just as television and movie theaters do.

But recreation areas on publicly owned lands are like art galleries, museums and libraries, meant to enrich society by enlightening and elevating individuals who come to them. Parks and forests provide an antidote to urbanized living, a return to pioneer pathways, a chance to exercise the body and mind in harmony with the great outdoors.

We should not allow the mismanagement of our public lands, for public lands are the heart and body of the West, and maybe soul, too. Take away the public lands and there wouldn't be much to the economy either. Public lands are the last open spaces, last wilderness, last wildlife haven.

Without public lands, the West would be an impoverished province.

Money is not the simple answer, but Congress must provide the funding for administration necessary to maintain these national treasures for future generations. It should not order administrators to merchandise the resource in order to pay their salaries. Like any object of beauty, a park requires protection, with high standards of care and conservation, to sustain the qualities that make it special. And the very same goes for state legislatures in providing for state parks.

I believe the travel industry and citizen conservationist organizations can work together for the long-range good. In Jackson, Wyo., several years ago, I learned of a tourism survey commissioned by the chamber of commerce. It determined that visitors were attracted most by the following assets: Grand Teton National Park; Yellowstone National Park; big game, visible and legendary (moose, elk, deer, coyote, bighorn sheep); outdoor recreation, adventuresome and tranquil; mountain setting and scenery, uncrowded open country; and hospitable, friendly people.

The emphasis needs to be on protecting and enhancing natural quality and character, letting dollar values follow. Robert Giersdorf, a past president of the Travel Industry Association of America, has said: "Our very existence and success depend on making sure that pristine and unimpaired wilderness experiences are preserved for tomorrow, next week, next year, and for the next generation of visitors to enjoy." That makes a sound approach.

Meanwhile, the fee demo program has proven so distasteful that even three of its original Republican supporters in the Senate, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard of Colorado and Larry Craig of Idaho, have given up on it. It is scheduled to end in 2004. Let it go, I say, and get on to better things.

Michael Frome is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a veteran journalist, educator and author of the upcoming book, Greenspeak: Fifty Years of Environmental Muckraking and Advocacy.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].