Congress hobbles fee program for public lands
The ability of the U.S. Forest Service to charge a fee to visit places like the Maroon Bells and possibly expand the program to cover hiking on public lands was dealt a potentially lethal blow in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 23-0 to make the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project permanent for only the National Park Service. The ability to charge the fee would lapse for three other federal agencies – the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service.
Opponents of the fee hailed the committee’s vote as a “remarkable victory.” Kitty Benzar, co-founder of a Norwood, Colo.-based citizens’ group called the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, said all senators on the committee were flooded with hundreds of e-mails and telephone messages urging them to kill the fees. The group didn’t oppose the use of the fees by the National Park Service because studies show it uses the program effectively and efficiently.
The No Fee Coalition has persuaded 10 counties in Colorado to formally oppose fees. The Pitkin County Commissioners recently passed a resolution against the program and urged Congress to devote more funds from the general budget to the public land management agencies.
Benzar said the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, lobbied the senators hard right up to the time of the vote Wednesday to renew the program for all four agencies.
“You can’t believe how hard they pushed for this,” said Benzar.
Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness and a vocal opponent of the fee demo program, said the vote showed that grassroots’ efforts really can work. “We went toe-to-toe with some powerful players and – this time – the people won,” he said.
The bill had bipartisan support. It was proposed by a Republican, Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming.
Critics of the fee demo program say taxpayers are already providing funds to manage and use public lands, so they shouldn’t be hit with another fee. They also claim it forces the agencies to use lands they should be protecting as a commodity to be developed. The agencies tend to develop facilities to offer the public more of a “benefit.”
Critics also fear that the fee demo program will lead to privatization of public lands or greater use of profit-driven concessionaires. The foes claim that the program could be expanded so that a payment would be required to visit any national forest and desert canyon.
The cash-strapped land management agencies counter that the program is vital for raising and keeping funds at the sites where they are needed most. Local Forest Service officials say the funds raised at the Maroon Bells pay for maintenance of bathrooms, staffing and presentation of interpretative programs at the immensely popular site. Visitors are charged $10 per vehicle in morning and evening hours, and the Forest Service gets some proceeds from bus tickets sold at mid-day when vehicles are prohibited.
The program raises about $120,000 annually. If Congress lets the fee demonstration program lapse for the Forest Service, it’s uncertain how it will affect the Bells. The Forest Service and Pitkin County teamed before fee demo was created in 1996 to restrict access in Maroon Valley and charge visitors.
Pitkin County commissioner Mick Ireland told Forest Service officials at a recent meeting he imagines that approach would be resurrected if the fee demo program is killed.
The fee demo fight isn’t over. Amendments to keep the program alive for the other agencies could still be added when the bill is debated on the Senate floor. Benzar said the bill approved by the committee yesterday lets the program lapse for the three agencies rather than specifically killing it to avoid rubbing salt in the wounds of supporters.
“It’s hard to kill a federal program. It’s like “The Night of the Living Dead,'” she said, referring to the classic horror flick.