The price of public lands
Land managers and activists debate the value of fees

Little Molas Lake captures the reflection of the surrounding peaks early Monday morning. The Western Slope No Fee Coalition is opposing a plan that would make improvements to the area and begin charging fees for its use./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The national controversy over the price the public is charged for use of public lands is heating up locally in the San Juan National Forest. While fees for recreation on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands have been contested for years, a pending local appeal and potential congressional action could mean a short-term resolution for the dilemma.

On Sept. 2, a group of 12 appellants spearheaded by the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition formally appealed a Forest Service decision to improve the Little Molas campground and begin charging fees for usage. Since that time, the town of Silverton and the San Juan County commissioners also have lodged their opposition to the proposed upgrade.

The Forest Service plan calls for a 20-site campground, a fee-collection kiosk, a potable water system and a day-use picnic area at the lake, as well as a parking lot on the west side of Highway 550. Three toilets also are planned, including one at the highway parking lot. In total, the upgrade is estimated to cost $700,000. The improved campground will be operated by a private contractor, known as a concessionaire.

While the appellants say they don’t necessarily object to the improvements, they do object to a new camping fee that would cost between $10 and $12 and a day use/picnicking fee of $5 to $6. Instead, the appellants favor a scaled down version of the proposal which would carry no new fees.

Spiritually wrong

Kitty Benzar is one of the co-appellants and a founder of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a locally based group with members in 33 states. She said the Little Molas proposal and countless other examples throughout the state and nation are wrong for many reasons. Benzar cited double taxation, heavy-handed enforcement, commercialization of public lands and masking of federal budget issues as a few of the many reasons to oppose fees for public land usage.

She also added, “We all need access to nature. To charge a fee for it is just spiritually wrong.”

Benzar noted that decisions like the Little Molas plan are indirect violations of the 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which stipulated that federal agencies should be prohibited from charging for day use of the lands they manage.

“Legally, the Forest Service cannot charge for the use of things like a picnic table,” Benzar said. “But if they contract the area to a concessionaire, they are able to charge for it. That’s what’s being proposed for Little Molas. This is a $700,000 tune-up in an effort to attract a concessionaire.”

Benzar remarked that similar things are happening elsewhere in the San Juan National Forest, specifically in the Junction Creek drainage where reconstruction is under way on Durango’s principle primitive campground. “It’s six bucks to use a picnic table in Junction Creek now,” she said. “That may not be a lot of money for some people, but picnicking should be a low-budget item.”

The Junction Creek Campground is currently being renovated. All San Juan National Forest campgrounds are administered by concessionaires who are entitled to collect fees for day use./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The toll booth

Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, commented that fees are continuing to spread throughout the region, particularly on national forest lands. “Those of us who live in the West know that the difference between Forest Service and BLM land is the toll booth in the middle of the road,” he said.

In particular, he cited the growing number of concessionaires operating areas like campgrounds and boat ramps as contributing to higher costs for recreationists.

“The Forest Service is increasingly allowing concessionaires to charge for day use areas,” Funkhouser said. “There is a trend that’s growing rapidly in the agency to expand on that. There have been abuses in the Durango area and elsewhere related to concessionaires.”

One of the coalition’s biggest pushes has been targeted outside the Little Molas proposal and the Durango area and is aimed at ending the notorious Recreation Fee Demonstration program. The reason this push has taken place outside the San Juan National Forest is that there are no Fee Demo sites in the forest, with the exception of the Anasazi National Heritage Center outside Dolores, which charges $3 a day. Although the Little Molas proposal would entail new fees, it is not technically considered a Fee Demo situation.

Elsewhere in the state and country, the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have directly collected fees as part of the demonstration project for the last eight years. Currently, the Western Slope No Fee Coalition is fighting a $6 Fee Demo at the Gunnison Gorge. And in April of this year, the group celebrated the only victory against Fee Demo in the nation when Ouray County commissioners voted to put an end to the fee station in Yankee Boy Basin.

Strong momentum

Last Tuesday, Funkhouser was making his 14th trip in the last 15 months to Washington, D.C., to lobby against Fee Demo. A bill that would end the controversial program on all public lands except national parks is working its way through the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, a two-year extension of Fee Demo is being proposed in the U.S. House. Funkhouser said that his impression is that the tide is turning against the fee demo program.

“I hope we can kill the program on the Forest Service, BLM and with the Fish and Wildlife Service this year,” he said. “There’s strong momentum to do away with the program in both bodies. But there are also people who are holding onto it, like Congressman Scott McInnis. McInnis feels that double taxing rural Westerners for the use of their public lands is appropriate.”

Pam DeVore is the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program adminstrator with the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. She offered a different prediction. “Our expectation is that we’ll have some kind of authorization for Recreation Fee Demo,” she said. “But right now there’s really no telling what will happen.”

DeVore said she has a different view of fees, noting that should the program end, public lands would be adversely affected.

“Things would go back to the way they were before,” she said. “Without fee demo, we just don’t have the dollars. Our budgets are just getting worse and worse. Without Fee Demo, places that have high levels of use will get very little maintenance. You’d have things like the Mount Evans bathrooms getting cleaned only once a week.”

No going back

Ann Bond, public information officer with the San Juan Public Lands Center, said that without Fee Demo, things would not change much on local public lands. “There is not a Recreation Fee Demo Program on the San Juan National Forest,” she said. “We’ve never felt the need. Usually, public land agencies use the program when they need money.”

With a mind toward the Little Molas appeal, Bond adamantly defended the local Forest Service’s use of concessionaires. She noted that the private contractors operate the forest’s three dozen campgrounds for the last decade and have kept fees low. Bond concluded that elimination of fees is unrealistic in the context of growing public land usage.

“It’d be great to go back to the good old days,” Bond said. “But it’s hard to manage the exponentially growing use on public lands. It’s a hard dose of reality that nobody likes.”

Bond said that Little Molas in particular has been hit by heavy and hard use and has seen significant damage. Citing places like Lime Creek Road, Cascade Canyon, South Mineral Creek and several other locales, she added that there are still places where there are no fees.

“I hate to even tell people about them because they are already heavily used,” she said. “But you have a place like Little Molas, which is a pristine, high-altitude area, and it’s really getting hammered.”

Still, even with high use in areas like Little Molas, Bond said that the local forest has been fortunate. “In the big scheme of things, we don’t have the pressure of the Front Range forests,” she said. “We don’t have the hordes of people. We’re not adjacent to a huge urban center. What we have to deal with is minor.”

Benzar takes a different view. “The end does not justify the means,” she said. “Fees are the wrong way to fund the work they’re doing.”

Whether these contradictory opinions can be resolved should be determined in the near future. The San Juan National Forest and appellants of the Little Molas decision will be sitting down in coming weeks to negotiate and try to find some middle ground.






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