Local public lands snared in Catch 22 | VailDaily.com

Local public lands snared in Catch 22

Tom Boyd

It’s Saturday morning and the base-mountain parking lot is filling up. A few parking attendants in uniform jackets are guiding cars into their spots, talking to visitors through rolled-down windows, and directing the flow of traffic toward snow-covered mountains.No, this isn’t Vail or Beaver Creek on a peak day.This is Vail Pass, these are public lands, and the uniformed parking attendants are four full-time Forest Service employees and a handful of volunteers who manage up to 100 vehicles a day.Vail Pass has become one of the most popular places in the state to ski, snowmobile, or snowshoe on public land, and managing the hundreds of people who come to use the area has become an increasingly expensive endeavor yet federal money isn’t coming in to help the Forest Service deal with the huge crowds.So what’s the current solution?The fee demo program.Introduced nationwide in 1996 to produce more funding to manage specific areas, the fee demo program is the reason it costs $5 a day to play on Vail Pass (see related story, page 7).”(Federal) recreation budgets have been going down steadily over the past 10, 15 years, and we just can’t manage areas like that effectively without some kind of support,” says Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein. “When you get to a specific area and you want to manage it, and make it a better experience for the user, the users of that area pay a little bit more money and the money goes back into that specific area.”The Forest Service reports that 95 percent of funds collected at the fee-demo areas in Eagle County go specifically toward managing those areas ($5 a head to enter the Vail Pass fee area; $75 or more per day at the Tigowan Cabin; and $50 a night for an overnight stay at the Piney Guard Station near Muddy Pass).Members of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (and a growing host of locals) say that there are multiple problems with the program. For starters, they see the charges as a form of double taxation.But they also see a deeper pattern developing in the initiation of the fee program (and in the current effort in Congress to expand it and make it permanent). The fee program, they believe, is the first step toward commercializing public lands paving the way, literally, for private, capitalistic exploitation of public domain and the creation of concrete infrastructure in America’s wilderness.”They’re making a product out of what we own and we pay our taxes to maintain,” says Robert Funkhouser, head of the coalition. And if he’s paying extra money to help fund the Forest Service, Funkhouser wants to know exactly how the organization is spending the $5 billion a year (and more than $500 million a year specifically earmarked for recreation) they already receive from the federal government.But he doesn’t and not many people outside of the Forest Service do.A report by the federal General Accounting Office revealed that more than 50 percent of funds garnered from the fee program go directly back into the effort to collect those same funds despite the fact that Congress limited the Forest Service to a maximum of 15 percent of total fee-demo revenue to collect funds.The Forest Service has further alienated Congress by failing to identify maintenance backlog needs, which has the GAO wondering how much the Forest Service actually needs from the government to keep up maintenance and infrastructure duties, and why extra funding is needed from the fee-demo program.At places like Vail Pass, for example, the parking lot is maintained by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The Forest Service hasn’t built any infrastructure nor does it provide special facilities. They’re spending most of their fee money on personnel to collect and enforce fees and the rest on patrolling and monitoring the public’s behavior on the land.The argument is that the public needs monitoring because different users desire different experiences. Motor-powered sports enthusiasts want to ride wherever their ability takes them, but human-powered folks want the quietude that noisy snowmobiles shatter. The Forest Service patrol is intended to separate the two groups and make sure everyone gets along.But coalition members say they don’t need the government’s help to get along.”There’s this idea that money is the answer to all issues, and that’s not the true solution,” says A.J. Johnson, a snowmobiler who opposes user fees. “They’re going to make criminals out of people that are just out walking through the woods. The new Smokey the Bear is going to walk around with a change machine and a gun pretty soon. It just keeps going and going.”Johnson and Funkhouser point toward other areas of the country where snowmobile groups have collaborated with backcountry snowsports groups to share public lands responsibly, instead of paying a police force to patrol and punish those who aren’t responsible in their use of public lands.On the other hand, says Forest Service assistant district ranger Dave Van Norman, some of the amenities that the public wants simply wouldn’t be possible with current government funding they only exist without the fee funds.At the Piney Guard Station cabin near Muddy Pass, for example, the Forest Service used fees to fix shattered windows, cut firewood, and buy a new wood-burning stove.”Before the recreation fee demo Piney Guard Station was closed to the public,” Van Norman says. “There wasn’t the money to maintain it, so it was locked up.”The anti-fee coalition counters with an anti-privatization argument: private organizations run tours to cabins on public lands or they are hired as outsource labor to maintain public lands.Nova Guides, for example, has exclusive use of publicly-owned Tigowan Cabin during the winter. They charge $98 per person for snowmobile tours to the cabin, where they serve cocoa and keep a fire going in the stove. It’s certainly in the best interest of Nova Guides and a handful of other privately held businesses in Eagle County for the fee-demo program to foot the bill for the maintenance of Tigowan Cabin, Piney Guard Station, and the groomed cat ski trail on Vail Pass.”It’s one of those things that both sides are going to have to agree to disagree,” Wettstein says. “You do hear the opponents, they do recognize that if fee demo were to go away, then the Forest Service would have to get more funding (from the government).”

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