Feel like hiking? Got $85?
An Ohio congressman wants you to pay an $85 annual hiking fee to play in the national forests and on other public lands that cover Eagle County.If the bill – sponsored by Rep. Ralph Regula – is passed, Eagle County residents who are used to walking out their doors and hitting a trail in just a few minutes would instead be required to buy an “America the Beautiful Pass” to use public lands.Regula recently introduced a bill that would make recreation fees permanent and expand the powers of the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and Fish and Wildlife Service to charge fees.Dawes Wilson, director of the Vail Valley-based Trails Action Committee, said the proposal flies into the face of common sense.”When the number one health problem in the country is obesity, to dissuade people for hiking by charging them is backward thinking,” Wilson said.The Ohio Republican’s bill hasn’t been debated yet. If passed, additional fees could be also charged for motorized-vehicle use of public lands, according to the bill’s wording.The federal land management agencies have had a limited recreation-fee program in place since 1996. But Regula’s bill proposing permanent status and expansion of recreation fees is the worst nightmare for a western Colorado organization that’s fought for years to abolish the program.”It makes criminals of Americans for visiting their own lands,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, based in Norwood, which is between Montrose and Telluride.People who visit public lands without paying the fee would be subject to a fine.Funkhouser and other critics of the recreation fee concept have maintained that it is unfair because it charges Americans to use lands they already pay taxes to support. In addition, they claimed it would lead to commercialization of public lands. They envision companies like Disney becoming partners with the government and handling the administration of access to public lands.Funkhouser said that vision is a step closer to reality with the introduction of the Regula bill.”This is our worst fear,” said Funkhouser. “This is what the recreation industry has been fighting for.”But members of Congress expect Regula’s bill to face a tough time. Blair Jones, a spokesman for Rep. Scott McInnis, said the Congressman is against the Regula bill because he believes there are unresolved questions about the effectiveness of the recreation-fee program.McInnis successfully urged the Government Accounting Office – the nonpartisan, investigatory branch of Congress – to examine the program earlier this year. The report indicated the National Park Service has been applying it effectively, but raised questions about whether the Forest Service is effectively using the funds raised for maintenance of facilities and completion of projects otherwise unattainable, as was the intent.McInnis wanted those issues addressed before the program was extended, let alone made permanent, said Jones. “Basically his concerns are mounting,” he said.McInnis is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Forest Health. He held hearings in September on the recreation fee demonstration program. McInnis has said the program should be fully debated by the House Resource Committee before it is extended.The program was created by a “rider” on a appropriations bill. It has never received a full hearing on its merits before the appropriate committee, as most programs do.McInnis still wants the House Resource Committee to hold hearings on whether the program should be extended, according to Jones.But that’s not going to happen this session. A 15-month extension of the program was added last month to an appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior.The expansion and permanent status of the program, as proposed by the Regula bill, is yet to be debated. If the debate occurs this session, McInnis will oppose it, said Jones.Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, said the Boulder congressman -who represents Eagle County -has repeatedly voted to strip the demo-free program from the Department of Interior appropriations bill.”(Mark) believes any legislation that deals with fee demo needs to be handled by the resource committee which has jurisdiction,” Pacheco said. “He’d like to have hearings in the committee so people can testify with a full public process.”Pacheco said Udall wants Congress to boost funding to federal land management agencies such the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management -or, BLM.”Their budget has been cut so heavily that the Forest Service and BLM don’t have the resources they need. If we did that, there would be no need for a fee-demo program,” Pacheco said.If the Regula’s bill become law, Wilson said public lands where High Country residents play will be tough to police.They’ve always done some small pay-for-use projects like Vail Pass and there’s always a charge for camping,” Wilson said. “I think it would be unenforceable and uncollectible because there are too many access points.”