Price of recreation threatens to jump
Public lands ‘passport’ clears legislative hurdle

A sign points trail users in the right direction at the Colorado Trail. Under proposed legislation, users of public lands would be required to carry an “America
the Beautiful” pass which would cost $85 or more./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

R ecreation on public lands could carry a hefty admission price in the near future. Hikers, bikers, hunters and all users of public lands may have to start carrying a “passport” if a U.S. Congressman from the Midwest get his way. Last week, a bill that would permanently authorize the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program passed quickly out of committee. As a result, critics fear that all users could be hit by new fees, even in places like the local San Juan National Forest, where such fees currently are not required.

The notorious Recreation Fee Demonstration program, or Fee Demo, was first enacted eight years ago as a test project for increasing public lands revenues. The program creates new recreation fees to be reinvested in recreation areas. Fee Demo applies to Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands. Opponents have charged that Fee Demo represents double taxation and an illegal taking of public property rights. Advocates counter that a boom in recreational use combined with dwindling revenues has led to damage to public lands. Earlier in the year, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that made Park Service fees permanent and called for Fee Demo to lapse at the end of 2005.

Last week, a bill proposed by Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, charted a different course for Fee Demo and quickly passed the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee. The bill would permanently authorize Fee Demo by requiring all public lands users to carry an “America the Beautiful” pass before setting foot or tire on any of the nation's 640 million acres of public lands. On top of a basic annual fee of $85 or more, expanded fees would be required for amenities like campgrounds and boat launches. Another layer of fees would be applied to group activities and motorized recreation. Recreating without the pass would result in a $100 ticket for first-time offenders. After a second infraction, the offense leaps up to a Class B misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

Opponents of Fee Demo are outraged that Regula's bill exists at all.

“You should not have to have a pass of that sort to use public lands that you already pay taxes to maintain,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.

Funkhouser added that Regula's bill goes too far in requiring the public to pay for everyday use rather than special services like campgrounds.

“The public doesn't really oppose paying for services above and beyond standard use,” he said. “But this bill goes way too far and is over the top.”

Kitty Benzar, a Durango resident and member of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said that the push would also bring fees into the local forest for the first time. Currently, there is only one Fee Demo site in Southwest Colorado, the Anasazi Heritage Center, and it charges a $3 entrance fee. Under the new circumstances, locals would be required to carry the pass when accessing standard recreational getaways like Animas Mountain, Horse Gulch or the Colorado Trail.

“This would bring Fee Demo to this area,” Benzar said. “It would go everywhere. The local land managers would have no say.”

The opposition is further outraged that Regula's bill passed through committee so easily. They cited circumstances in which Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Virginia, was alone in voicing concerns about the passport and added that no representatives from Western states spoke against the bill.

“It is disappointing that western congressmen and other members of both parties, who have voted before to oppose forest recreation fees, raised not a word of protest against a permanent, multi-agency recreation fee bill,” Funkhouser said.

Benzar added, “We don't like the direction things are heading in at all. We feel like we're being betrayed by people in Congress who once opposed Fee Demo. This just shows that we don't really own our public lands at all. Ralph Regula does.”

Advocates of Fee Demo take a different view of Regula's bill and Fee Demo in general. They fear that public lands will suffer without the addition of revenue and are looking to the public to pick up their own tab. Pam DeVore is the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program administrator with the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. “Our budgets are not keeping pace with inflation or the huge increase in recreation we're seeing,” she said. “We've got trash all over the place that needs to be picked up. We've got places that need toilets. There are things the public wants us to supply that we can't afford to supply.”

DeVore argued that the “America the Beautiful” pass would not only increase revenues, it would simplify management. She said that there are currently numerous passes issued for public land, including the Golden Eagle, the Golden Age and the Golden Access. Agencies are also given a menu of fees from Congress, according to DeVore.

“It's very confusing,” she said. “It's almost impossible for us to understand let alone the public. One of the things we've been trying to get done is have one pass. The ‘America the Beautiful' pass would do away with all these other passes and accomplish the same thing.”

Whether the “America the Beautiful” pass comes into being still depends on a great deal of political wrangling. With the Legislative session nearing its end, Congress will have to revisit this topic early in 2005 and quickly reach a compromise between Regula's bill and the recently passed Senate recreation fee bills.

“Where it will go from here is what we're endeavoring to find out.” Funkhouser concluded.





News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index