Uncle Sam wants you to pay to play on public land

Article by Bob Berwyn

Forest Service Fees – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S THE BEST TIME of the year at Cataract Lake. The fields are full of sassy wildflowers, each flaunting a brighter color than the next. The lake, cradled in its setting of glacially polished granite, glistens like an alpine jewel, reflecting the toothy crags of the Gore Range.

But if you want to hike the trails, take a few snapshots, or even just sit along the shore to enjoy a picnic, make sure you’re carrying cash, because the U.S. Forest Service charges a day-use fee at the Summit County site — one of a handful of locations in Colorado where the agency is testing a pay-to-play scheme. User fees are also in effect at Mt. Evans and Vail Pass and have been proposed for the Maroon Bells area, near Aspen, and Yankee Boy Basin, near Ouray.

It’s all part of the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, authorized by Congress in 1996. Under the program, federal land managers can charge for the use of public land — regardless of the level of service provided. The Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have all set up fee demo sites in the past three years, collecting $176.4 million at 363 sites during fiscal year 1999. Fees range from as little as $3-$5 for trailhead parking to as much as $30-$50 for mountaineers looking to camp and climb on some of the country’s most popular summits.

Charging fees to use public land is not a completely new phenomenon. Long before Congress authorized the rec fee demo program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 authorized federal agencies to collect entrance and use fees for developed facilities, including campgrounds with plumbing or mechanized boat-launch areas.

National Parks have also been charging entrance fees for quite some time, and fees are also collected under special use permits, used to license commercial operations like ski areas or outfitters. But most of the revenue from those sources goes straight to the general treasury, where it’s re-allocated as part of the overall budget.

Under the rec fee demo program, by contrast, 80% of the fee must be used at the site where it’s collected, generally to tackle a backlog of maintenance problems or to raise the level of service provided at the site. The remaining 20% goes into a regional pot as seed money to start up subsequent fee areas.

In addition to site-specific user fees, the agency also charges fees for some interpretive programs, also administered under the regional umbrella of the rec fee demo program. Self-guided auto tours at Picketwire Canyon, out on the plains but administered by Pike-San Isabel National Forest, fall into this category.

SOMETIMES IT IS NOT completely clear whether a site is part of the rec fee demo program or if it’s a “traditional” pay-to-play site, administered under the Land and Water Conservation Act. Take, for example, a parking area near Kenosha Pass, serving a trailhead for the Colorado Trail. The site is managed by the Pike-San Isabel’s South Platte Ranger District and includes a busy restroom, along with a short stretch of interpretive trail.

But Steve Priest, the district’s recreation forester, says that area is run by the same private concessionaire who leases the Forest Service campground on the other side of the highway.

“It’s a busy place,” Priest says, explaining that in the summer, the restrooms are in use non-stop, all day long. “It’s pretty much the only rest stop facility between Denver and Fairplay,” he explains, adding that it’s just at that critical distance from the Front Range that people need to stop and use a toilet.

Priest says the fee at the area has been very controversial. People have a hard time understanding why they have to pay just to use a toilet. Responding to numerous complaints from the public, Priest says the Forest Service is negotiating with the concessionaire to put an end to the fee. He says there have also been some talks with state officials about developing an official rest area near the pass.

The Forest Service says it needs the fees to properly manage the skyrocketing demand for recreation on the National Forests. The agency’s recreation budgets have not kept pace with increasing visitation, or even with the cost of wages and general inflation, Priest and other Forest Service recreation managers say.

“The demand has increased astronomically,” Priest says, explaining that his district’s proximity to Jefferson and Douglas counties puts it near the epicenter of Colorado’s population explosion. “I think that as people get frustrated with the congestion on I-70, they’re looking at other ways to get into the mountains. We’re seeing some of that I-70 backlash over here,” he says.

[Cataract Lake]

Priest doesn’t have any hard numbers on visitation, but says that, this summer for the first time, the agency has hired a company to do some scientific sampling.

The number of pay-to-play sites could increase dramatically in coming years. The demo program is set to expire in 2001, and the Clinton Administration has signaled its intention to introduce legislation that would give the federal agencies permanent authority to collect fees. Depending on the outcome of the legislative process, hundreds of new sites could be added to the program.

While the final outcome is still in question, a time element is in play.

“Whatever it’s going to be, it needs to happen soon,” says Dennis Bschor, national director of recreation, wilderness and heritage programs for the Forest Service. “I heard the other day that the House Appropriations Committee is ready to introduce an extension,” Bschor said, adding that he’s expecting something to be introduced before May 15.

“If we don’t have an extension or something permanent by Sept. 30, (the end of the fiscal year), then we’d have to start shutting down demo programs,” he adds. An annual Congressional report on the program warns that, if an extension is not forthcoming, then the fees collected this year would have to be spent on dismantling existing fee demo projects.

Forest Service recreation managers in the Rocky Mountain region say that, if the program is continued, they would like to have the flexibility to implement fees at their discretion.

“We’d like to have as big a box as possible,” said Pam DeVore, regional coordinator for the program. “That would give us some wiggle room.”

DeVore said recreation managers are currently putting together a draft proposal, and she wouldn’t rule out the possibility of forest-wide fees that could be implemented by selling an annual sticker for a specific National Forest.

[Fee sign]

SOME FOREST SERVICE recreation managers back that type of fee, saying it would best help cover the cost of managing the many small facilities that are spread across vast tracts of forest land — trailheads, toilet facilities. and so on — but DeVore says internal debate on that point is still raging. Blanket fees have drawn the most intense opposition from the public. Forest visitors are more likely to support a fee if the money is collected at a specific site and if they can see improvements to facilities there, DeVore says.

“People don’t mind paying as long as it’s easy and convenient, and if they can see where the fees are going,” she explains. She points to a test project in Montana where fees paid by outfitter/guide operations are administered under the fee demo system, with the revenue going right back into the area where the fees are collected. Devore says that has allowed the agency to improve facilities for visitors, and also to devote resources to site-specific problems like noxious weed control.

THE OUTFITTERS and guides are also happy with that system, says Linda Feldman, the agency’s national manager for the rec fee program. “They’re going to pay fees in any case, and this way, they can see that the money is coming right back to the area they use,” Feldman says.

Feldman says the Forest Service would like to be able to administer other similar operations under the recreation fee program, since it would allow the money to stay in the area where it’s collected — and needed.

But whether that’s politically feasible is another question. Capturing funds from operations currently administered under special use permits would cut into the amount of money the Forest Service brings into the general fund. That concept could meet with stiff opposition in Congress, according to Feldman and other Forest Service officials.

The fee program also has generated support from many field-level Forest Service employees, including wilderness rangers at Cataract Lake, who say the funds help pay for needed work at the trailhead. That, in turn, frees up the wilderness crew to concentrate its limited resources on managing the backcountry.

Other proponents include Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an internal agency watchdog group. Stahl says recreation fees are the best way to get money to where it’s needed most. According to Stahl, routing revenues through traditional channels is inefficient. The Forest Service, like any other large government bureaucracy, spends too much money on administrative functions, Stahl claims.


The rec fee demo program has been targeted by a broad coalition of grassroots groups with a variety of agendas. Some of the groups say the fees represent a form of double taxation; others claim they are exclusionary toward low-income families, while still others say it’s inherently unfair that public land use by timber and grazing interests is subsidized while recreational users are hit up for user fees. A common thread running through those arguments is the fear that recreation fees represent a big step toward the ultimate commercialization of public lands, a process critics say will lead to a Disney-fication of outdoor recreation.

[An unhappy hiker paying the fee]

To support their argument, they point to the involvement of the recreation industry in developing a national policy for public land recreation. A number of high profile groups, including influential national coalitions of motorized users, have lobbied extensively to promote their agenda.

Environmentalists say those groups, including the manufacturers of off-road vehicles, are hoping to develop profitable commercial operations in the National Forests. This trend, they say, promotes high impact, industrial-type recreation that generates the most revenue, including downhill skiing, ORV use, and resort development, over low impact activities like hiking, backcountry skiing, and nature study.

Prominent outdoor writers have advocated civil disobedience, penning pieces in outdoor magazines — including Back Country, Couloir and Climbing — suggesting that users should simply refuse to pay fees, and federal judges in some states have refused to hear cases where charges have been brought against people who didn’t.

Resistance to a forest-wide pass in parts of California grew so strong last year that a congresswoman from the central part of the state introduced a measure to end the fees. Rep. Lois Capps said the fees generated more angry mail and phone calls from her constituents than almost any other federal policy matter during her term.

“I thought we were going to lose the program last summer,” Bschor admits, adding that the Forest Service has learned that site-specific fees are much more palatable to the public. “That’s why this is a test program,” he adds. “We’re still learning about how to best administer fees.”

Still, Bschor says there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for the agency’s recreation programs. At the same time, he acknowledges that the traditional extractive constituencies seem to resent the shift in Forest Service priorities — away from logging, grazing and mining, toward recreation.

THOSE SPECIAL INTEREST groups have strong support in Congress from powerful conservative lawmakers from the rural West. Many observers have concluded that those political forces are trying to punish the Forest Service by tightening its purse strings. That, in turn, is driving the agency into an even closer embrace with recreational interests, thus perpetuating the cycle of budget cuts and increased reliance on fees.

That’s the political context for the debate, says Scott Silver, one of the most outspoken critics of the rec fee demo program. Silver, an intense, avid outdoorsman from Oregon, has made it his personal cause to end the experiment. His nonprofit group, Wild Wilderness, was formed expressly to fight recreation fees.

“The Forest Service is caught between a rock and hard place,” Silver says. “They’re getting hit from both sides. The timber and mining guys hate the fact that they’re emphasizing recreation more and more, and they’ve used their influence in Congress to cut the Forest Service budget.

“That’s pushing the Forest Service toward the fees. But that’s alienating the public,” Silver says. “The Forest Service is committed to the program, and they don’t care what the public thinks. They’re creating the general public as an enemy.”

Silver claims that Forest Service surveys showing support for the fee program are skewed by the way the questions are phrased. He promises the agency will be in for a fight when it tries to extend or authorize the program permanently.

Silver says when the Forest Service develops commercial facilities it must then advertise those facilities to recoup its original investment. That leads to an intensifying spiral of development, use, and commercialization, he claims.

OUTDOOR RECREATION in National Forests is one of the last places to get away from the commercialism that has invaded nearly every other part of modern life, Silver says, deploring the billboard mentality that threatens to turn even the most treasured outdoor sites into a series of theme parks.

“Paying changes the experience,” Silver says. “It’s like the difference between love and paid sex.”

Taken to a logical, market-driven conclusion, the policies that encourage fee programs and concessionaire-operated facilities could result in a sell-off of some “unprofitable” forests, says Bethanie Walden, an activist with Missoula, Montana-based Wildland CPR.

“If Congress funded recreation on the National Forests to appropriate levels, the fees would be unnecessary,” Walden says.

“The Forest Service isn’t managing for resource protection. My fear is they will make the same mistake they made with other resource industries. I see the Forest Service stepping into the same relationship with the recreation industry as it did with mining, grazing and logging interests,” she says.

In those cases, critics say, the Forest Service lost sight of its mandate to manage public lands in the public interest. Instead, the agency moved to establish a relationship that mainly benefited the private companies they were doing business with.

Walden isn’t alone in accusing the Forest Service of mismanagement. One of the hot spots on the fee demo scene is Vail Pass. Where easy access to motorized and non-motorized recreation has resulted in ongoing conflicts between user groups. But long-time backcountry skier Scott Toepfer says Forest Service mismanagement caused the mess there in the first place.

“It’s terrible up there. There’s garbage all over the place. I blame nobody but the Forest Service,” Toepfer says. “They granted all the permits for huts, for snowcat skiing, and they’ve encouraged snowmobile use. Now, they’re charging to fix the mess they created in the first place.”

Even though Forest Service officials say they have widespread support for fees, a series of informal surveys at Vail Pass and Cataract Lake during the past year tell a different story. Dozens of people who paid the fee said they did so grudgingly, only because they didn’t want to break the law.

“It’s not something they’re going to ram down anybody’s throat,” says Chaz Howard, setting out for a hike around Cataract Lake. “It’s about marketing. They’re going to tell you, ‘it’s going for this, it’s going for that,’ ignoring the fact that it’s our land to begin with.”

Howard, from Moab, Utah, says the same trend is evident on his home turf. He’s concerned the fees will incrementally climb higher. “They get their foot in the door. This year it’s $5, next year it’s $6. What’s it going to be 50 years from now?” he asks.

THE NAU FAMILY, from Littleton, has been visiting Cataract Lake for years, says Gerry Nau, putting his $5 into the payment slot. Nau says he was surprised when he and his family arrived for their annual visit a few years earlier and found the fee station.

“I wasn’t happy. And it’s not just here. “It’s up at Mount Evans, everywhere,” he says. “It’s getting to be a drag, especially if you’re only going to be here for a few hours to take a hike. That’s all we want to do, is hike around the lake.”

His wife, Elnore, adds that a private concessionaire now operates a Forest Service site at Kenosha Pass that used to be free, and that it’s not even possible to stop and use the restroom without paying a fee.

This is exactly the kind of thing that has Silver so fired up, and he promises the issue will get a full hearing in the court of public opinion — if not in the halls of Congress. Silver says Wild Wilderness, along with the 150 other groups that have joined the anti-fee coalition, are gearing up for a national day of action June 10. Silver isn’t advocating any specific course of action, although in the past, he has said that boycotting the fees could be an appropriate form of protest. Instead, he said, each local group should design its own course of action to show land managers they are opposed to the fees.

“We want people to realize that recreation on public lands is at a crossroads,” he says. “This is the time to make a stand.”

Bob Berwyn lives in Summit County, and became a freelance writer after the Summit Daily News took him off the ski-industry beat for writing too many critical stories about the resorts.