Forest Service recreation fees in spotlight again
Opponents of controversial Forest Service day-use recreation fees say the program is running out of steam and are anticipating a measure in the U.S. Senate that could end it outright.”September is it for fee demo,” says activist Rob Funkhouser, who volunteered for the West Slope No Fee Coalition a few years ago and has since spent countless hours in Washington, D.C. as a citizen lobbyist. Funkhouser, now president of the organization, urged Coloradans to contact their elected officials to let them know how they feel about the fees that have been in effect at an ever-growing list of trailheads and picnic areas, including the popular trail system atop Vail Pass, since 1996.Funkhouser says behind-the-scenes maneuvering and committee meetings during the upcoming round of budgeting could make or break the future of the program.Wyoming Republican Craig Thomas is preparing to introduce a measure that would make the fees permanent in National Parks but kill the program on other public lands. Support for fee demo has waned in the Senate in recent years, with high-profile lawmakers like Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) taking position against the program recently. Both Colorado senators are on record as opposing fee demo, according to Funkhouser. The Thomas bill is scheduled for a Sept. 9 hearing.In the House, Republican Congressman Scott McInnis is working with powerful allies to introduce a bill that would establish a permanent recreation fee program. In the end, it may come down to a conference committee on the budget, Funkhouser acknowledges.The fee demo program was introduced in 1996 as a way to funnel revenues directly to on-the-ground management efforts where they are needed most namely at busy recreational sites. The idea is that 90 percent of the fees collected often about $5 per visit stay at the location, to pay for trail maintenance and other basic needs, like sanitary facilities. Up to now, the federal government has collected about $900 million in fees.The program was launched as a “test,” and as critics warned from the beginning, it has since been extended year by year and to more sites, without ever getting real Congressional scrutiny. But the piecemeal extensions don’t work well for the Forest Service since they never know from year to year whether those same funds will be available, so top agency officials have pushed for a permanent fee program.In Colorado, 10 counties and numerous towns and cities have passed resolutions condemning the program. More than 250 organized groups oppose the program, and civil disobedience to it is rampant. In California alone, more than 160,000 notices of noncompliance or citations have been issued.Critics say the fees amount to double taxation and fault the Forest Service for spending too much of the money on collection and enforcement. And a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative branch of Congress, seems to bolster that argument.Released last May, the GAO report indicates that the Forest Service systematically under-reported the cost of collecting the fees. The report also shows that, in 2001, the agency used $10 million of its appropriated funds to subsidize the fee program. The way critics interpret the GAO numbers, the Forest Service spent nearly half as much as it took in to pay for running the program.”Nearly one in every two dollars spent on the fee demo program is from appropriated funds,” says Funkhouser, questioning the cost-effectiveness of the program, which, after all, was supposed to pay for itself.
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