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Public Land User Fees aren’t going to go away

Article by Bob Berwyn

Public Lands – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

POPULAR RESISTANCE to recreation user fees on public lands may be spreading, but elected officials and agency bureaucrats seem intent on continuing the program.

Congress voted in October to extend authorization for the fees by two years, and a top Forest Service official testified before a House subcommittee that his agency will soon present plans for a new and improved — and presumably permanent — version of the so-called recreation fee demonstration program.

First authorized in 1996, the test project enabled the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service to charge fees above and beyond those authorized under previous legislation. The Forest Service, for example, can now require day-use fees at relatively undeveloped sites like the Cataract Lake trailhead in Summit County, where it costs $5 just to take a two-hour stroll around the lake.

Colorado has seen several new fee sites added during the past year, including the Canyon Creek/Yankee Boy Basin area near Ouray, Arapahoe National Recreation Area in Grand County just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and various dispersed camping areas around Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County.

Under the program, most of the money is supposed to stay at the site where it was collected to pay for services and facilities. Land managers say their recreation budgets haven’t come close to keeping up with increased demand, and explain that without fees and volunteer help they would have to close down some facilities.

According to Forest Service statistics, most of the fee revenues (30.8%) are spent on general operation like garbage pickup and cleaning toilets. Collection costs use up 18.8% of the revenues, while 18.3% goes toward repairs and maintenance; 10.3% on interpretation and signage; 6.2% on upgrading facilities; 6% on health and safety; 3.5% on law enforcement; 3.1% on resource preservation; 2.6% on other costs, and 0.4% on habitat improvement.

The recent two-year extension for the program came as the Interior Appropriations Conference Committee hammered out a compromise on a spending bill. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health — chaired by Colorado Republican Scott McInnis — held an oversight hearing to discuss a permanent extension of the program.

“There is a growing feeling among those on all sides of the issue that the time has come for Congress to make a definitive, comprehensive and long-term decision about the future of this program,” McInnis said to open the hearing.

“Congress needs to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the (program). That process begins here today. What are the program’s strengths? Where has (it) fallen short? What statutory guidelines can Congress give the Forest Service to reinforce the desirable elements of the Demo, while heading-off any unintended consequences or unwanted up-shots?” McInnis continued.

MCINNIS WENT ON TO SAY that Congress simply has not appropriated sufficient funds to meet even basic Forest Service needs, and that, realistically, there are “no signs” those funds will materialize anytime soon.

That being the case, he said the agency will continue “to rely on tools like the Rec Fee Demo that, while maybe not needed in a perfect world, provide a fair and equitable stream of financial resources to manage our Forests’ recreational resources.”

Testifying before the subcommittee, Forest Service acting deputy chief Denny Bschor said the Forest Service is ready to incorporate information from the test program to “develop policy for a nationally consistent, but locally driven, fee program.”

Even as Congress considers the issue, 31 Coloradans are potentially facing $5,000 fines and even jail time for their refusal to pay a $5 day use fee in the Canyon Creek/Yankee Boy Basin, a popular four-wheel-drive area near Ouray. The tickets were issued earlier this summer during a protest against the fee program organized by the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, a 100-member group organized specifically to fight the fees.

The Colorado group is part of a much larger loose-knit national anti-fee coalition including groups like the Colorado Mountain Club and the American Alpine Club.

Some interesting dynamics are emerging, as four-wheel-drive enthusiasts team up with Sierra Clubbers to fight the fees.

“Groups of people with diverse views are coming together to try and preserve our heritage of access to public lands,” said Gunnison resident Skip Edwards, secretary for West Slope No Fee Coalition.

The American Alpine Club’s Lloyd Athearn said his organization has some problems with the way the fees have unfairly targeted climbers in the Pacific Northwest, where peak fees are charged for access to some popular summits.

IN ONE CASE in the Pacific Northwest, the Forest Service ticketed a researcher who was on public lands for scientific purposes. A federal judge dismissed the charges, but not on those grounds. The judge held that with thousands of entry points covered by a regional pass that sold for $30, the Forest Service had exceeded its authority to collect fees at only 100 demonstration sites nation-wide. But with the new law, that limit is gone, and presumably, so is that grounds for dismissal.

In Arizona, meanwhile, a federal magistrate ruled that the Forest Service can’t simply ticket cars without first contacting the owners.

Julie Kreutzer, the Boulder attorney representing the Colorado protesters, says she will fight the case mainly on First Amendment grounds.

“These people were out there exercising their right to protest,” says Kreutzer. “Can people be ticketed for protesting a government policy on public land?” she asks.

Kreutzer says the Forest Service has recently established a record of intolerance toward protesters, beginning with anti-logging demonstrations in the Pacific Northwest and continuing through the high-profile arrest of several activists and a journalist during protests against Vail Resorts controversial Category III expansion.

“The Forest Service doesn’t like it. I think they just see these people as a nuisance, and they just want to get rid of them,” she says.

In the Vail case, Kreutzer represented one defendant charged with violating a Forest Service closure of the area near the expansion, where work on new lifts and trails was just beginning. She prevailed, convincing the judge that the agency violated its own regulations when it issued the order without following proper procedures.

Kreutzer thinks the fee case is equally clear-cut, and she expects to prevail despite the fact that the Forest Service wants to turn this into a high profile, precedent-setting case. That’s fine with her, since she also has an ambitious goal.

“Our goal is to knock out the fee demo program as unconstitutional. It’s just too broad and too vague,” she says.

Bob Berwyn is a free-lance writer in Silverthorne.