Congress considers forest rec fees again
It sounds like a never-ending story, but proponents and critics of Forest Service day use recreation fees are again preparing for battle. Rob Funkhouser, a grassroots activist with Colorado’s West Slope No-Fee Coalition, says there is legislation pending in the U.S. Senate that could make the fees permanent, without ever being subject to a full hearing.Backers of the fee program may try to attach a rider to the interior spending bill as early as the first week of October the beginning of the new budget year Funkhouser says. The program has been extended several times with riders, but this time, the aim is to make them permanent.Funkhouser, who has spent several weeks lobbying in Washington recently, says backers hope that, with so many other things on the national agenda, the fee legislation may pass under the radar screen of public awareness.Forest Service officials claim the agency needs the revenues from the fees to manage high-use areas and provide the services the public demands, especially in the face of stagnant budgets. But critics say agency spends most of the money that comes in simply on administering the fee program. The White River National Forest is considering operating several campgrounds in Eagle County under the so-called fee demo program.Recreation officials with the Forest Service have long supported the fees, but a recent survey among agency employees found that about 38 percent of them are opposed to the program. According to the survey, many agency employees questioned the fairness of the fee program, especially with regard to those forest users in low-income brackets.Additionally, the program has been challenged in court several times, most recently with a class-action lawsuit in California claiming the fees are unconstitutional. In Colorado, the fees are generally limited to specific sites, including a winter day-use charge at Vail Pass. But in California, Washington and Oregon, the program is administered differently. Forest users are asked to purchase an a pass that’s valid across a particular national forest. In some regions, the fees now comprise about 20 percent of the Forest Service budget.Forest Service officials have also said that they may consider a more regional application for the program. One example is the recreation fee already in place at the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Recreation Area in Grand County.In the California lawsuit, an attorney for the plaintiffs contends that the Forest Service over-stepped legal bounds when it criminalized conduct in the national forests. The program has been authorized by appropriations measures, which generally are related to funding issues and not to criminal law.Jeffrey Pine, one of the plaintiffs in the California lawsuit, says he was arrested at gunpoint after he declined to take a ticket from a ranger. He spent a night in jail but was never prosecuted.
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