Recreation fees may be eliminated

Free public access could be returning to millions of acres of federal public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. A bill introduced by three western Senators in December aims to repeal the Federal Lands Recreation Act. Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester joined with Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo as original co-sponsors of SB2438, the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007.

The Durango-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which has championed the effort to end the user fees that began as an experiment in 1996, hailed the bill as the first step in a national initiative to restore public lands to the public.

“The Fee Repeal Act will bring an end to a failed experiment that has for 10 years burdened Americans with a double tax and kept them away from public lands they have always enjoyed,” said Kitty Benzar, executive director of the coalition. “I applaud this bipartisan effort and call on all public lands supporters to mobilize in support of it.”

The bill would allow National Parks to continue to charge Entrance Fees, but would return all other federal land management agencies to the provisions of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. Fees would be allowed only in developed campgrounds and swim sites, and at specialized boat launch facilities. Fees would be specifically prohibited for the use, either singly or in any combination, of drinking water, wayside exhibits, roads, overlook sites, visitors’ centers, scenic drives, toilet facilities or picnic tables. Fees would also be prohibited for dispersed, undeveloped camping and recreation.

These rules were repealed in late 1996 by the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program which has come to be known as Fee Demo. Originally limited to a two-year experiment at no more than 100 sites, Fee Demo was repeatedly expanded and extended while meeting increasing public resistance. In 2004, U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, attached the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to a must-pass omnibus appropriations bill, which went into effect in December of 2004. Since that time, access fees have multiplied, visitation has declined, recreational facilities that cannot pay their own way in fees have been closed, and fee revenue has replaced public funds at the local level.

“Recreation user fees were originally sold as a way for the agencies to raise supplemental funds to address their backlogged maintenance,” Benzar said. “Instead, fee revenue was used for day-to-day operations and to build facilities that have only added to long-term maintenance needs. And now we are facing thousands of site closures and being told they are necessary because there is still no money for the backlog.”

While many adjacent forests have wholeheartedly embraced Fee Demo, the program has only a limited presence on San Juan Public Lands. Concessionaires do charge for services at numerous local campgrounds, but only the Anasazi Heritage Center is an official Fee Demonstration project.


Local green power gets affordable

The cost of green power is going down in Southwest Colorado. The La Plata Electric Association’s Board of Directors recently approved a price reduction for power supplied from renewable resources.

As of this week, member/customers can opt to pay a premium of $0.80 per 100 kilowatt-hour block, down substantially from the old price of $1.25 per 100 kilowatt-hour block. The change means many households can go green for just a few extra dollars a month.

“We continue to have tremendous interest in the voluntary program,” said Ray Pierotti, who handles the Green Power accounts for the cooperative. “In many ways, we feel like reducing the price is a reward to those who have already committed to the program, and the lower price may make it more accessible to a broader customer base.”

The price reduction comes as a result of Tri-State Generation & Transmission’s revised renewable energy program. Tri-State will now charge its customers, such as LPEA, daily market prices for what it purchases, which currently is approximately $0.40 for each 100 kilowatt-hour block. Because the market price fluctuates and LPEA does not want to continually change the rate to its volunteer green power customers, the LPEA board has opted to add an additional $0.40 to the premium to absorb those market fluctuations, plus to generate funds for local renewable programs and purchase locally produced renewable power.

“The board wants to support and encourage the advancement, development and installation of renewable generation projects in our service territory and region,” said Greg Munro, LPEA CEO. “One way we will attempt to accomplish this is by utilizing voluntary renewable generation funds from participating members – more commonly known as our Green Power program.”

Currently, Tri-State’s “green power” is generated from wind farms in Wyoming, plus some small hydroelectric and biomass plants. Though some of these dollars that customers spend on green power leave the community, LPEA member/customers who participate in the program are also supporting the local cooperative, local renewable purchases and local renewable projects. LPEA’s hope is that the extra green power dollars generated (above market prices) will help support more renewable projects in the region, so that in future years more of these energy dollars can remain in the communities served by the cooperative.


Federal funds slide into southwest

Southwest Colorado got several big Christmas gifts from Washington, D.C., this year. When the president signed the 2008 Omnibus Appropriation bill on Dec. 26, tens of millions of dollars were freed up for local projects.

“This appropriations bill is a victory for Colorado. It contains significant federal funding for numerous high-priority projects that are important to the infrastructure, economic development and well being of our communities,” said U.S. Rep. John Salazar, who fought for the funding.

Among items included in this funding bill is a $292,000 to be used by the Mercy Health Foundation of Durango for construction and or equipment for a primary-care health clinic. The clinic will be used to provide primary care to residents in La Plata County and stem the shortfall created by the closure of Valley Wide Health Systems and the shortage of primary physicians.

Mesa Verde National Park received $1.5 million to expand the park by more than 350 acres and create a new Mesa Verde Visitor’s Orientation Center. Much of the property is located on the park’s north end and will be acquired from the Henneman family with help from the Conservation Fund.

Nearly $400,000 in the appropriation bill will go to easing the Town of Bayfield’s sewer treatment woes. The funds will be part of the town’s $7 million wastewater upgrade to accommodate the growing population. The Chimney Rock Archeological Area also received a $ 241,178 boost in the bill to be put toward preservation and improvement of the park between Durango and Pagosa Springs. Lastly, the bill contains a whopping $60.4 million for construction on the Animas-La Plata Project in 2008.

Originally, Bush’s 2008 budget contained $58 million for construction of the water storage project taking shape southwest of downtown Durango. However, “rising costs of project materials” necessitated an additional $2.4 million to flow toward the project which implements the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Final Settlement Agreement.

– Will Sands


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