Land of the fee 

With recreational funding for national forests on the decline, are public lands becoming pay-as-you-go playgrounds?

On Jan. 17, Leeanne Siart, a biologist from Oregon, and a colleague crossed a section of the Siuslaw National Forest on the Oregon coast to get to a beach near the town of Florence, Ore. Their plan was to check on a predator control program they feared might be having an impact on the endangered snowy plover. Specifically, they were looking for garbage or anything else along the beach that might be attracting predators.

Siart works for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental watchdog group that keeps an eye on USDA Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) projects, and though it was more her colleague’s project than her own, Siart went along for the ride and drove the two of them in her vehicle.

After spending several hours on the beach, the two returned to Siart’s car. When they got back, two Forest Service law enforcement were waiting for them with a video camera. One of the officers asked Siart and her colleague for identification. When they asked why, Siart says “he immediately threatened to arrest us.”

The biologists complied and showing their identification. Siart was then asked whether she had paid her recreation fee to cross the national forest to get to the free-access beach. At that point Siart and her colleague stopped answering questions because, as she puts it, as environmental watchdogs they felt the two Forest Service workers saw them as the enemy. Instead, she directed the two federal employees to speak to her attorney.

The officers persevered, and at one point tried to separate Siart from her colleague, but, she says, “I refused to go with him. He wanted me to go behind his car with him to further question me.”

The showdown ended with no arrests, though Siart, the driver of the car, was slapped with a $50 citation. Her offense? Crossing the Siuslaw National Forest without having first obtained a $5 recreation pass.

Siart opted to challenge the citation in federal court. Her case rests on twin claims: that she was not recreating on the beach that January day but was working, and that the fee program she was charged with violating is no more than a pilot project that was never made permanent by Congress.

“We were there for work,” argues Siart. “If the Forest Service wasn’t so inclined to spend millions of dollars every year on logging they wouldn’t need our $5 fee.”

Siart will appear before a U.S. Magistrate Sept. 6. She expects her citation will be dismissed.

Fee Demo: Twice taxed?

If she prevails, it won’t be the first time a federal judge has thrown out a violation of the federal recreation fee demonstration program, known simply as “fee demo.” Though federal land managers love the program because of the revenue it brings in to cash-strapped and heavily used forests, lakes and campgrounds, some citizens believe that they are being taxed twice to support recreation on public lands. They fear that the program will ultimately balloon and turn national forests into national theme parks, complete with RV pads, concession stands, wide, paved roads and all manner of overdevelopment in otherwise wild places. Others are worried that fees will eventually rise so high that low- and moderate-income people will be locked out of lands that, for all intents and purposes, they own.

Depending upon who tells the story, fee demo was dreamed up either by national forest managers in southern California, who were besieged by millions of visitors each year, many of them entering the urban forests with crime on their minds, or by an alliance of largely pro-motorized sports groups known as the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). Either way, Congress, which slashed the Forest Service’s recreation budget throughout the 1990s, saw an opportunity to fund the nation’s growing recreation needs through user fees. In 1996, Congress approved fee demo as a pilot project for 100 public sites nationwide. Since 1996, it’s been renewed three times, and comes up for a four-year renewal next month.

Search this country from New Hampshire to Oregon, Arizona to Colorado—four states where fee demo has been challenged by private citizens in federal court—and you’ll find no greater critic of the program than Scott Silver. Silver is executive director of Wild Wilderness of Bend, Ore. He says that legislatively, fee demo was flawed from the outset because it was simply tacked on to a Department of the Interior appropriations bill and was never subjected to the open hearing process necessary for making public policy. In effect, says Silver, “[The appropriations bill] created a program simply by virtue of the fact that it had money attached to it.”

Though Silver is contemptuous of the congressional end-run that created fee demo, he reserves his real ire for the ARC. It is the ARC that is hell-bent on developing—Silver would say overdeveloping—America’s great outdoors to better accommodate the products and services that are manufactured and provided by the Coalition’s 200-plus members, among them: the American Motorcyclist Association, Boat Owners Association of the United States, the American Resort and Residential Association, American Power Boat Association, and the Walt Disney Corporation. According to the ARC website, ARC does support the fee demo program, but notes that user fees are nothing new. National Parks, for instance, have charged user fees for years.

But Silver argues that the ARC’s support of the fee demo program only demonstrates how unhealthy a close relationship between public lands and corporate America can be, increasingly by forcing Congress to look at those lands as money makers, rather than as wild lands one visits to seek solitude. In a worst-case scenario, America’s valued forests could someday become America’s great corporate theme parks.

When fee demo first appeared, says Silver, “we were seeing the tip of the iceberg that was a long, long time coming.” The Forest Service, facing a declining recreation budget, jumped on the fee demo bandwagon by shifting emphasis from resource extraction to the lucrative recreation market. Since 1994, when recreational funding hit a peak at $372 million nationwide, its funding has dropped steadily, and by 1999, funding for recreation had been cut to $293 million. For federal career foresters, fee demo is a demonstrable accomplishment that looks good on a resume and measures real progress on a corporate model, he says. Improving forest health, a typical Forest Service goal, is not as quantifiable as raising money through fee demo, says Silver. With fee demo money, he says, a forester can tell a superior, “‘I was able to raise $2 million.’ This is a demonstrable benchmark.” It’s not just a numbers game, however. Silver says that when the federal government charges citizens to enter land they own, something much more fundamental is lost. The “wilderness experience”—that hard-to-quantify, nearly mystical relationship to nature—is compromised.

“I haven’t been in a wilderness area for a year,” says Silver. “The whole time I’m hiking I’m thinking what I’ll say to the judge. My whole experience is destroyed when I’m thinking I’m a criminal.”

Tom Spencer dismisses such concerns as a matter of perspective. Spencer is project manager for the fee demo program on the San Bernardino National Forest in Los Angeles, one of four national forests in southern California. He knows Silver, and is well-aware of what he considers is a misguided crusade to rid America of the onerous fee demo.

“Scott Silver is having a bad life,“ Spencer says bluntly. “He chooses to make his life miserable. That’s just the way it is.” Spencer traces the origins of fee demo not to the ARC, but to former Vice President Al Gore’s “reinventing government” plan, which forced government agencies to scale back and become more entrepreneurial. In response, four southern California forests teamed up to form the Southern California Enterprise Forest Project, wrote a business plan to raise more money, and eventually came up with the user fee model.

Under this plan, forest users now must buy an Adventure Pass for $5 per day or $30 per year if they want to go outside and play on the San Bernardino, Angeles, Los Padres or Cleveland national forests. In effect, citizens have become customers of the Enterprise Forest Project.

While “paying to play” represents a profound shift in forest management philosophy, you won’t hear Spencer complaining. He says he has forest management problems so costly that they would send most of his Montana counterparts running for cover. Southern California’s four national forests are surrounded by 25 million people. Spencer doesn’t know exactly how many people recreate in his forests every year, but with southern California’s crushing population, even a small percentage can wreak havoc, and not just from too many hiking boots or campfires. Gangs, transients, squatters, poachers and lone criminals who once hid in the forests of southern California, broke into cars parked at trailheads, left weeks’ worth of “toxic litter” behind or defaced boulders with graffiti have been driven out by law enforcement officers who now roam the forests thanks to the money the fee demo brings in. For Spencer and his colleagues, and for the millions of law-abiding families in southern California, fee demo has been a blessing. Without it, he says, “The good guys get nervous and you’re left with the abusers. They don’t like that closer management that’s going on. It causes a big social dynamic change, and that’s been very important.”

Fee demo does not represent double taxation, argues Spencer, since users are paying for services Congress is not funding.

“Do you trust Congress to adequately fund our national recreation program?” he asks. “I don’t. They never have and they never will. Why wait for our forests to fall apart waiting for Congress to give us more money?”

But Silver counters that the Forest Service has simply misplaced its spending priorities.

“The reason fee demo was created was never to raise a few extra bucks for maintenance of existing recreational facilities,” he says. “Fee demo was created by the commercial recreation industry as a mechanism for turning raw nature into saleable recreation products. Fee demo was created only to provide the foundation for a pay-to-play, public lands, recreation-tourism economy.”

He says that land managers are not being entirely honest when they tell citizen/customers that all their fee demo money is being invested directly back into the fee demo site they are using. In fact, the Forest Service sells fee demo permits to sporting goods stores and other outlets at a discount. At least some of that money goes to private businesses.

Moreover, some fee demo programs are so vague that it’s difficult to know how many programs they fund or to which sites the money is flowing. Consider, for example, Idaho’s fee demo program, where an annual pass to visit all local, state and federal public land costs $69. In Oregon and Washington, a $30 pass will buy you a similar annual permit, or you can purchase a $5-a-day permit to hike all the trails in those states. While fee demo advocates say that the money is divvied up and allocated for “improvements,” critics argue that citizens have no way of knowing precisely which trails, picnic areas, campgrounds or lakes are being improved.

Spencer says the government isn’t being dishonest when it claims money collected goes to improve fee demo sites. By law, 80 percent of all fee demo revenue is spent on fee demo site improvements. About 450 vendors in California sell Adventure Passes, and they do buy them from the Forest Service at a discount, paying $27 to sell the annual $30 permits.

“Somehow, the vendor has to cover his cost,” Spencer says, in defense of the system. But he says that buying passes through independent vendors makes more sense than buying them at less-visible Forest Service offices throughout California, and it’s a convenience that the citizen/customer demands.

In fiscal year 1999, the last year for which the Independent was able to obtain revenue figures, $176.4 million was collected in user fees by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service combined. Nearly $3 million of that sum was collected by the four southern California forests that comprise the Enterprise Forest Project.

Motorized traffic only

Lake Como, just south of Hamilton, was made a fee demo site in 1996. It now costs $2 to access the lake. Mary Laws, acting resource assistant for the Darby and Sula Ranger Districts, thinks it costs between $40,000 and $45,000 annually to maintain Lake Como’s campgrounds, boat ramp, restrooms and beach. Fee demo brings in about $30,000, with the rest supplemented by other forest funds.

Laws says that when fee demo was first put into practice, they did hear some grumbling. Recently, however, “complaints have really dropped off.”

If that’s the case, it may be due to the fact that the $2 fee has resulted in a dramatic change in lake recreation; rusticity has been replaced by development, and many of those who liked Lake Como the way it was before the “improvements” have since stopped coming. The new crowd—personal watercraft users, the motor homers and the fast boaters—find the new and improved Lake Como much more to their liking.

“The improvements definitely changed the clientele. But the population’s [also] changed,” says Laws. And that new clientele demands better access, smoother roads, bigger parking lots, and more campgrounds.

All of which leads to a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. Whether the Forest Service bowed to public demands for improvements, as the agency maintains, or whether a new crowd began showing up at Lake Como precisely because of the improvements probably will never be known.

“They were coming anyway and we needed to do something,” says Laws. Dan Ritter, the deputy district ranger for Darby and Sula, says the former Lake Como users—hikers, backpackers and canoeists—have probably been replaced by the motorized crowd. But like Laws, Ritter refutes the notion that fee demo created a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality. He says people like the new recreation scene at Lake Como, and don’t quibble over the $2 fee.

Keep the customer happy

Like many national land managers responsible for directing human traffic in and out of the forests, Spencer insists that fee demo has been a hit with the public. He reads aloud from one letter sent to him by a citizen who praises the program, a letter which calls for a balance between the nation’s birthright and its duties to protect that birthright.

Though it may try the imagination to believe a citizen would write a letter to a federal bureaucrat thanking him for a new tax, Spencer says it’s only one of many similar testimonials from a grateful public.

Forest Services officials in Ouray, Colo. probably shouldn’t check the mail looking for letters from satisfied customers anytime soon. Fee demo was instituted with little or no advance notice in May at the popular Yankee Boy Basin in the Umcompahgre National Forest. Thus far, citizens there have refused to see themselves as customers.

Kitty Benzar of nearby Durango helped organize a protest on the day fee demo was instituted. With little publicity, the May 25 protest drew about 45 people. Protesters were ready to receive $50 citations for failure to display their recreation passes, but since the official signs hadn’t been erected yet, no citations were handed out. Still, says Benzar, “It was a nice statement.”

At the second protest, on July 7, Forest Service law enforcement were ready with two roadblocks. Between 100 and 150 protesters convoyed to the site in 50 cars. Each driver was asked politely to purchase a pass. Each driver politely said no. At the second roadblock, Forest Service law officers handed out citations to each driver. “The people who wanted tickets patiently stood in line waiting for them,” says Benzar.

Since none of the protesters actually entered the fee demo site—the tickets were given out on the county road—every protester sent his or her ticket back to the federal court marked “not guilty.”

Last week, Coloradoans performed their third and final act of civil disobedience for the season. This time, the local forest ranger foiled their plans by announcing—the day before—a free day at Yankee Boy Basin. “He was definitely trying to deflect our efforts for a meaningful protest,” Benzar says.

Five or six federal law officers were on hand, though normally only two assigned to that area, she says. “It was our third experience,” she says indignantly. “He knows who we are and that we’re not a rowdy, radical bunch.”

In the next few weeks, Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell will hear complaints from his constituents about the fee demo program at four town meetings. Benzar, with no previous experience as a political activist, sounds a bit surprised, but also grateful, that a U.S. senator is finally listening to them.

Campbell’s interest is also crucial because he sits on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which oversees the subcommittee on forests and public land management.

Benzar hopes that Campbell will push for more recreation funding for the nation’s forests and eliminate the fee demo program altogether.

As for Silver, who has considerably more experience in the political realm, he remains skeptical about the Bush administration’s goals for public land management. He predicts that while Congress may find flaws in fee demo, it will continue charging user fees under the same old program, only wrapped in a new package.

“My prediction is they’re going to turn this into a win-win,” he says. Congress and the recreation industry will work together to come up with a new plan with the same goal, and present it to the public as “We learned, and here’s the new way we’re going to screw you.”

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