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The Commodification of Nature

Essay by Scott Silver

Public Lands – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

SINCE THE BIRTH of our nation, America’s public lands have been exploited so as to maximize the commodity value that could be extracted from them. Two hundred years later, in 1979 to be exact, a new public lands predator called the “American Recreation Coalition” (ARC) came onto the scene. Unlike earlier profiteers who sought gas, coal, logs or minerals, ARC sought to turn outdoor recreation and tourism on public lands into an extractive industry and to profit handsomely in the process.

ARC, a coalition of some 120 corporations, embraces the traditional extractors such as Chevron, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute. But to this cadre ARC adds new interests such as Yamaha, American Motorcyclists Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, and the Walt Disney Company. These new interests, not content to extract the resource wealth of the lands, seek to commodify nature itself, for fun and profit. Our mountains, rivers, deserts and woodlands have suddenly taken on new values as profiteers attempt to package, brand, market and ultimately sell America’s Great Outdoors as value-added recreation products.

Perhaps nothing expresses this idea more clearly than the following quote from the U.S. Forest Service’s first ever Chief Operating Officer, Francis Pandolfi. Pandolfi came to the Forest Service in 1997 directly from the American Recreation Coalition where he had served as Chairman of their Recreation Roundtable. In 1999 he wrote:

“Have we fully explored our gold mine of recreational opportunities in this country and managed it as if it were consumer product brands? How could it be done? As federal agencies and others transition from providing outdoor recreation at no cost to the consumer to charging for access and services, we can expect to see many changes in the way we operate. Selling a product, even to an eager customer, is very different from giving it away.”

Following this model, outdoor recreation on public lands would cease to be characterized primarily as experiences of physical and spiritual “re-creation” and would instead, through conscious effort, be turned into branded products created for the purpose of being sold to paying customers.

It’s much like the difference between the concept of romantic love and paid sex.

Any prostitute could tell you that selling a product is very different than giving it away, but the Forest Service is not just any prostitute. For one hundred years they were mistress to the timber, mining and grazing industries and they gave away America’s collective wealth with wild abandon.

But attitudes have changed, and with the rise of a strong environmental movement, people stopped tolerating the plunder of our nation’s public lands. Suddenly the Forest Service could no longer hide behind its friendly Smokey Bear facade. The public began to demand better management of our National Forests and the Forest Service had no option but to change with the times.

It was under these circumstances that the ARC and the recreation industry made the USFS and other land management agencies an offer they couldn’t refuse. They offered a chance for land managers to get out of an abusive relationship with the extractors. They offered marriage, in the form of long-term, private/public partnerships.

THE PLAN WAS SIMPLE and Pandolfi explained it well when he said:

“… a product or brand could be defined as ‘Hiking,’ ‘Fishing,’ ‘Camping,’ ‘Skiing,’ and other activities. Thinking of outdoor recreation activities as products or brands suggests applying the principles of sound, private-sector marketing as an approach for meeting recreation demands and providing satisfying outdoor recreation products and services.”

ARC’s member corporations include not just the manufacturers of motorized recreational toys. It includes resort developers, ski area associations, National Park Concessionaires, campground management providers and the like.

The deal they offered was simple. They would provide the expertise and capital required to turn America’s Great Outdoors into a profitable business venture. Congress would, in turn, pass whatever legislation was necessary to allow the formation of those public/private partnerships necessary to permit this development. In return, federal land management agencies would provide these corporate special interests with the access to, and a chance to assume management control of, America’s Great Outdoors.

The plan was inaugurated in 1985 with Ronald Reagan’s President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors. ARC’s President, Derrick Crandall, was more than just one of the commissioners. He controlled the process and established the agenda. This agenda was furthered by President George Bush, the man to whom Derrick Crandall presented ARC’s coveted “Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award” in 1990.

In 1993, ARC’s Recreation Roundtable on behalf of the Chief Executive Officers of the Coleman Company, Yosemite Park and Curry Company, Kampgrounds of America, Walt Disney Attractions and 20 other ‘knights of industry’ presented President Clinton with a slick 30 page document titled; “Outdoor Recreation in America: An Agenda for the Clinton-Gore Administration.” The report proposed many new and innovative government programs with my favorite being the very Disneyesque: “Luring International Visitors to America’s Great Outdoors.” The cover letter under which that report was issued was signed by Richard Nunis, CEO, Walt Disney Attractions.

FOR THE FIRST FEW YEARS, the recreation industry and the land management agencies enjoyed a happy marriage. The Army Corps was so enamored that they referred to this union as a “win-win-win” and spoke of it with these words:

“The private developers win because of the excellent opportunities they will have to make a profit. The public wins because of the additional recreation opportunities made available to them and the Corps and the Federal Government win because much needed public recreational facilities are provided at no cost to the Government.”

There was, however, one extremely large obstacle that had to be overcome.

That obstacle was a 35-year-old federal law that specifically prohibited charging the public for recreating upon America’s public lands. Similarly it prohibited charging for access to those lands. The law provided but a handful of exceptions, notably entrance fees for National Parks, campground fees for developed facilities, and access fees for a handful of visitor centers. A separate law permitted charging for the use of ski areas, but that was the extent for which fees could be charged to the public for recreational use of public lands.

With these restrictions in place, there was no way in which to turn outdoor recreation into the branded products that Pandolfi envisioned simply because there was no way to make money. Without the ability to make money, there was no interest for the private sector to be part of the marriage. And without the financial backing and expertise of the private sector, federal land managers would be literally out of business. Were it not for one specific Recreation Roundtable Agenda item given to Clinton/Gore in 1993, the entire marriage could have faltered. It was that item which saved the day for some, and may prove to forever change the way the public gets to interact with their public lands.

In 1996 Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed, legislation authorizing a new program called the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.

That same year, the U.S. Forest Service signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the American Recreation Coalition making ARC the official “Challenge Cost Share” partner for this program.

With passage of that law, Congress granted unprecedented new authority to charge and collect fees for a virtually limitless variety of public land recreation products, goods and services.

The fee demonstration program was implemented as only a “test,” originally scheduled to end in 1999, but twice extended to give the program more time to be proven successful.

From now until the expiration of this test, land management agencies, with the help of their private partners and the support of free-market policy advocates in Washington, D.C., will be doing everything in their power to have Congress grant permanent recreation user fee authority. President George W. Bush has been extremely supportive of this user fee program and can be expected to actively encourage passage of any legislation that will more effectively commercialize, privatize or motorize recreational opportunities on America’s public lands.

THERE IS A REASON why it now costs $5 to walk on public lands or to stop your car long enough to watch the sun set. The reason is to create the financial incentives necessary to implement the recreation industry’s intended Corporate Takeover of Nature and the Disneyfication of the Wild.

For those who believe the official propaganda saying recreation user fees are about funding much needed maintenance of decaying infrastructure, think again. In the words of the Army Corps, here is the true reason for this program:

“The intent of the program is to encourage private development of public recreation facilities such as: marinas, hotel/motel/restaurant complexes, conference centers, RV camping areas, golf courses, theme parks, and entertainment areas with shops, etc.”

Scott Silver is executive director of Wild Wilderness (, 541-385-5261) in Bend, Oregon. The organization opposes commercialization of recreation on public lands. This article originally appeared in the October/November edition of the Canyon Country Zephyr (P.O. Box 327, Moab UT 84532; and is reprinted here with permission of all relevant parties — and some updates by Silver.