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for people who care about the West

You pay your money, you get your recreation

  Earlier this month, I told staffers of a U.S. Senate committee about my annual ritual where a woman in a Park Service uniform passes me a map of Yellowstone, brochures on bison safety and my National Parks Pass. I turn over $50 to her, and for the next year I have access to everything from the Gates of the Arctic to the Everglades.

It's all part of the six-year-old Fee Demonstration program that uses the funds to improve trails, repair outdated sewage systems and provide general maintenance where the fees are collected.

Not a bad deal, I think.

Last year, Fee Demonstration provided the Park Service with $126 million in gross revenues. The Bush administration seeks to make the program permanent. Two pieces of legislation are now in congressional committee and the administration hopes to push one to a vote before major House supporters retire in the fall. If the administration succeeds, it will be an environmental shouting point for 2004.

In decades past, environmentalists were hesitant to criticize recreation on public lands. After all, no resources were consumed and damage was minimal. The bad boys were mining, timber harvesting and grazing. But as those activities were curtailed, the realities of recreation became clear.

It did damage the environment. Recreation threatened half the sites on the 1999 National Parks Conservation Association's list of endangered parks. The organization's Rocky Mountain director, Mark Peterson, announced, "We need to recognize that tourism can be as environmentally destructive as mining and logging."

It consumed resources, too. Recreational users visit public lands to get away from people. But each additional visitor detracts from the experience of others. The difference between four people in a field and 40 is a consumed resource.

Fee Demonstration worked to address these problems. The $600 million collected between 1997 and 2001 mitigated environmental damages and repaired infrastructure. In Grand Teton National Park, fees paid for wildlife surveys and water-quality monitoring. The General Accounting Office assessed Fee Demo and found the program a success.

Why then does the Bush Administration worry about chances for making the program permanent? Who could object?

Some do, including those recreationists who simply don't want to pay the costs. They like free. They hate fee. Who wouldn't want someone else to pay for their play time? But, in this case, our public lands and their natural environments pay the price.

There are legitimate concerns about fee-based recreation. The first is fear about commercializing the parks. A second concern is that fees drive the poor from lands where they ought to "- through taxes "- hold equal title to the rich.

Commercialization, however, is the heritage of our national parks. The first park created by Congress, Yellowstone, coalesced from the Northern Pacific Railroad's aspirations for hauling visitors across the country for a profit. Moosehead hats, ice cream cones and plastic tomahawks have long been standard fare in our national parks.

As for the second concern, most low-income families lack the luxury of free time or the financial means to get to the front gate of a national park. But if we are worried about their access, one alternative is to send them a free pass based on the previous year's tax return or coupons for a percentage reduction in their fee.

>Let's investigate some real effects of fees, since after all, that's what "demonstration" programs are all about. Fees make public lands safer: At the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, assault, rape, and drunken driving dropped sharply after fees were imposed. Gang activity went down. Family visits went up.

Fees also help to protect natural resources. Funds from Fee Demo repaired trails in Utah so that visitors were prevented from straying off trails to harm the fragile, black crusts of bacteria, which provide groundcover in the region.

Fees also place decision-making power on the ground. No park manager will order a $1 million outhouse like Congress voted for Glacier National Park in 1998. On-the-ground managers know parks have more pressing needs. If this is commercialization, I'm all for it.

Scott Silver, who heads a group called Wild Wilderness in Oregon, is a leading opponent of fees. Mr. Silver's concern is that free and fee recreation differ like "romantic love and paid sex. It changes the experience totally. It can't be wild if it's not free."

He fails to mention that unlike free love, where both parties benefit, a plan of free recreation benefits the recreationist, while the environment just gets screwed.

I hope I can pay my fair share again next year.

J. Bishop Grewell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Research Associate with PERC - the Center for Free Market Environmentalism.

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].