Who’s to blame for those user fees?

Essay by Ed Quillen

Outdoor Recreation – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT IS NOT FASHIONABLE to express sympathy for government employees, especially those of the federal government, but I always feel sorry for forest rangers.

Why? In high school, many of us took those personality-profile tests that were supposed to match your characteristics with a career. If you were a self-starter who also scored very low in the “social interests” section — that is, you didn’t much like being around people or working with others — then the guidance counselor invariably suggested that you should become a forest ranger.

Out there in the back-country, just you and your horse and perhaps a pack train of mules, tending the woods: a perfect job for a self-directed anti-social person.

And so you’ve got a lot of anti-social, outdoor-loving people getting steered into forestry. Then observe real forest rangers at work — day in and day out, pounding keyboards and processing paper while jammed inside minuscule cubicles that make the Dilbert rat-maze work-space look commodious by comparison. The real work — the part those personality inventories never took into account — entails pushing papers, answering phones, attending conferences, giving presentations, and somehow simultaneously serving a fickle government, a demanding public, and a host of critical media that seldom want the same thing.

These days, most Forest Service jobs seem to require more tact, sociability and bureaucratic paper-shuffling than running for office. Yet rangers get crowded in with other people who have anti-social personalities, thanks to tests and guidance counselors. As I see it, it’s an abiding wonder that when a federal employee goes berserk, it’s always been at a post office, rather than a ranger station.

That’s why I feel sorry for forest rangers. They were supposed to enjoy healthy solo outdoor careers, and instead they’re jammed into tiny little offices with a bunch of other outdoor-loving individualists — all of them answering to a public that would be hard-pressed to agree on whether it was raining or not. I often talk to forest rangers in the course of my work, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a forest ranger in the woods.

SO WE LIVE IN A TIME when “forest rangers” hardly ever “range the forest,” and they work for a Forest Service whose goal is moving away from “serving the forests.” That, however, was the goal in 1891, when Congress passed a revision of the General Land Act, which led to the Bureau of Forestry and then the Forest Service.

Before that, most federal land was the “public domain.” While it might have been technically illegal to log it, the nearest federal marshal was probably a long ways from the sawmill in the backwoods. Timber companies moved through the upper Midwest after the Civil War, and goodly portions of Michigan and Wisconsin were left with nothing but stumps.

This outraged many people, among them President Benjamin Harrison, who served from 1889 to 1893. Using an obscure provision of the revised land act, he set aside six “forest reserves” in 1891-92. Then Harrison set aside more reserves, as did his successors, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Forest Service much as we know it today.

Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, was a Republican. But he wouldn’t fit in well with today’s Republican Party, or indeed in any party in today’s political climate. He was a nationalist Progressive who believed in large-scale public enterprise (i.e., building the Panama Canal).

The American Progressive political philosophy was largely based on faith in science and the consequent ability to practice “scientific management” (as opposed to traditional political methods like patronage and the spoils system). It’s the theory behind our civil service system.

Before TR’s time, private enterprise had been clear-cutting the public forests. But it seemed obvious that if you cut timber faster than it grew, you’d run out of wood someday. As Roosevelt envisioned it, a country that didn’t have wood to build homes and enterprises would be a feeble country, and feebleness was no part of TR’s manly vision for America.

Thus TR, and his forester appointee, Gifford Pinchot, set up the Forest Service as a big public enterprise, a national-security strategic-reserve operation, to insure that America would always have a wood supply, since the greedy timber barons would put their short-term interests (quick profits) ahead of the national interest (a sustained and continuous supply of wood for the rest of time).

The initial mission of the Forest Service was to operate a national tree farm to insure a steady supply of a vital national resource. By applying the science of silviculture, a strong America would result from strong forests. Another benefit, important to urban areas, was that protecting the forests meant protecting their water supply.

Scientific management also meant that civil-service professionals — not politicians directly accountable to the public — would make the decisions. Scientific management is one strand of the “cultural DNA” that the Forest Service carries to this day.

THE SECOND STRAND of this cultural DNA reflects the attitude of the dominant city when the Mountain West was taking shape inside the union — Chicago and the Midwest.

I’ve written at length about this, and maybe someday I’ll develop it into a book.

Basically, my argument is that in 1800, the Mountain West was a zone of contention between two cities who wanted its trade: St. Louis and Chihuahua. Their armed conflict in 1846-48 is now known as the Mexican War.

Although the nation St. Louis represented won, the city didn’t. Chicago was the real winner. After the Civil War, the Mountain West was organized as an extension of Chicago’s Midwestern hinterland.

Chicago’s attitude was that resources were there to be developed and used. By that light, the Indians were immoral because they just wandered around hunting, instead of putting potentially productive farmland to work. Thus the string of cavalry outposts to protect the settlers who were doing the noble work of taming the wilderness. Likewise, valuable minerals shouldn’t be left in the ground, thus came the Mining Act of 1872, which assumes that mining is the highest and best use of any ore-bearing parcel.

The idea was to turn land over to private interests and make sure it got put to use. Those with mining claims had to perform annual “assessment work” to keep their claims, and homesteaders had to work their farms for five years before gaining title.

This “develop it quickly” philosophy to manage the West in the 1870s and ’80s appears to conflict with the “scientific management for sustained yield” philosophy that appeared at the turn of the century.

And it does.

When the Forest Service was started, our geographic ancestors were outraged. They held a huge public rally in Denver on June 19, 1907. Who the hell were the feds to tell them which trees they could cut down in the public domain, or how many cattle they could run and where they could graze?

They decried this “foolish and sentimental regard of the forests.” Sen. Thomas “Slippery Tom” Carter of Montana called the forest reserves a “contemptuous disregard of the people’s interests,” and Sen. Henry M. Teller of Colorado asked “Are not men better than trees?”

But there was also a common theme — managing the land for maximum production of physical resources. The goal was the same under either regimen. It was the means that differed — sustained yield vs. rip-and-run, the public interest as determined by disinterested scientists vs. the private interest as determined by profit margins.

I used to believe there was such a thing as scientific forest management, but that was a long time ago. I quit believing after I noticed that the government scientists said that a given tract could produce a sustained annual yield of 10 million board feet when Jimmy Carter was president, whereas the same parcel could produce 60 million board feet when Ronald Reagan was president.

Real scientific matters, like the acceleration of gravity or the speed of light, don’t change after elections. But things like forest and range production estimates do seem to be affected, which is why I’ve lost my faith in scientific management. I’ll concede that it might be possible in theory, but the same is true of world peace or a crash-free computer operating system.

BACK TO OUR NATIONAL FORESTS. They were to be managed as tree farms so America wouldn’t run out of wood, and so that wood production would be maximized. The Forest Service would get a substantial portion of its income from timber sales (thus an incentive for not letting the trees rot on the hillsides or get consumed by fire), and to insure grassroots political support, a percentage of those revenues were set aside for local schools and county governments.

This all seemed to work through the 1970s. But our political and cultural environments have changed in three ways:

1) The belief in scientific management of forest resources has been overwhelmed by an ecological holistic view of forests as something much more than trees. The new belief comes close to being a religion (if it isn’t) — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the phrase “our sacred public lands.”

(My religious tradition, hardshell Baptist, taught us that no one place was any more “sacred” than another, because God was everywhere.)

2) The prevailing American political philosophy, especially at the federal level, has changed from the progressives’ public enterprise to privatization, as in “the era of big government is over.”

This debate is almost as old as our country. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists wanted a federal government that encouraged manufacturing and commerce with “internal improvements” — roads and canals. Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans wanted a minimal federal government which left such things to states, if they had to be done at all.

Today, this argument rages on, but mostly in economic terms. The government wants to keep its land — even adding monuments, wilderness, rules, regulations, fees and services — but it no longer wants to pay for it.

I’m afraid I don’t have enough room here to argue about the past and future of the Bureau of Reclamation or the Rural Electrification Administration. Instead, I just want to point out that both major parties (which are centrist or they wouldn’t be major parties) more or less support shrinking the public sector (or at least they support shrinking the budget of the public sector), as well as getting the government out of things that the private sector can do.

Public enterprise — operated by agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation and the Civilian Conservation Corps — built much of the infrastructure of the Mountain West. But the excesses of public enterprise have been justly attacked by both the left and the right.

3) The dominant city of the Mountain West is no longer Chicago, hog butcher to the world, with its view that resources are there to be developed and used. We are now part of the hinterland of Los Angeles, the realm of Hollywood and Disneyland, which has a very different world view as applied to the Mountain West.

Today we don’t live in a place that is supposed to be productive in a physical sense. Instead we live in a place that is supposed to be experienced, a sort of theme park on a continental scale.

Someday I’ll learn to write more succinctly, so that I don’t need all this preparation to get to the topic I wanted to write about in the first place — those user fees that the Forest Service has started to impose.

MY FRIEND GREG TRUITT has on several occasions commented that every change here in the past decade seems to result from a conspiracy to charge us for what we used to get for free.

I’d like to agree with him, but I haven’t found the conspirators yet. So I’ll look at some other explanations.

To some degree, Forest Service recreational user fees have been charged for more than a generation — in 1966, the agency was allowed to charge for use of developed sites, like campgrounds.

I’ve never minded those fees — tables, fire pits, pumps, and privies are worth $7 a day, and generally I’m not forced to use them, in that I can just go camp somewhere else in the Forest if I feel like really roughing it (an inspiration that occurs less frequently as I get older).

The new user fees are charged for things like parking at a trailhead. The definition of “use” has changed to include merely taking a walk on land that you own, with no commercial connection — except that when recreation becomes a business, then its activities get assigned a monetary value, and it starts to seem reasonable for the landowner (the federal treasury) to try to capture some of that value.

Now, to the three trends and why they mean more fees.

1) In an influential portion of the public mind, National Forests have changed from mere tree farms into sacred ecological preservation zones. That means a change in management (let fires burn because fire is a natural part of forest life, rather than extinguish them quickly because fires consume wood that we could use).

It also means that recreation is no longer a mere by-product. It’s the main product of our public lands, producing more economic value than timber, mining, or grazing.

A glance around Salida these days should be evidence enough — you’ll find more river guides than miners or lumberjacks. To put this another way, in 1997 Americans spent twice as much on camping gear ($1.037 billion) as the total value of the timber harvested in the national forests ($498 million).

The Forest Service was established to get part of its funds from users, like timber harvesters, commercial outfitters, and ski concessionaires. Further, part of the cultural tradition of both the Forest Service and America includes “a horror of waste,” whether from corporate indiscriminate forestry, or from forest fires that consume wood that should go to higher and nobler purposes (like holding up my walls), or from squandering all that scenic wonder.

Now hikers and sightseers have become the main group of forest users. As their numbers increase, various sites need accommodations like parking (one spewt can tend to itself for parking along a back road, but when there are 50, a parking lot becomes a necessity), privies (natural decay works when there’s one user every six months, but when there are 50 every summer day, there’s a health hazard without privies), and formal trails (so that meadows don’t get trashed and wildlife disruption is minimized).

These things cost money. Who should pay? The direct beneficiaries, or the federal treasury? Congress makes those decisions, which leads us to:

2) Public enterprise is out of fashion in Washington. In the current political climate, there will be no more big dams (like Glen Canyon), water projects (like Frying Pan-Arkansas), or new highway systems (like the Interstates).

Public-works projects, like mass transportation, may get federal assistance. But the impetus and direction comes from cities (Denver’s new airport) or states, not from the feds.

Given that, Congress is not likely to appropriate a few billion dollars to build and maintain facilities for hikers in the national forests.

Further, there’s a strong belief (one I share to some degree) that government should not compete with private enterprise.

Although most Marxist regimes have collapsed, one aspect of Marxist analysis remains strong, even in this country. By and large, Karl Marx saw man as strictly an economic creature and thus contrived an economic rationale for every social action.

Today, even in our safely capitalist country, public discourse generally seems to follow the Marxist model — we want an economic justification for every public action. That is, we’re supposed to operate schools, not because education has an intrinsic value or because educated people make better citizens of a republic, but because businesses need trained employees.

The federal government is not about to spend tax money improving visitor facilities in the National Forests because fresh air and exercise are good for you. (Besides, even if everyone agrees on the virtues of exercise, why should the government be competing with private gymnasium owners?)

Pursuing that course leads us to the third trend:

3) Our dominant city, Los Angeles, views the Mountain West as a place to “experience” — deep powder, thrilling single-track runs, dynamic whitewater, train trips to yesteryear, quaint historic districts, exciting four-wheel-drive routes… People pay for experiences. That’s what keeps Hollywood and Disneyland in business.

But if you have to pay to go to a movie or theme park, is it fair competition for the National Forests to be free? Should all 270 million Americans be taxed so that a few free-loading residents of the Mountain West can get their jollies out in the woods?

This argument, that the National Forests represent a form of competition to other forms of entertainment, seemed a bit far-fetched when it occurred to me. But the longer I ponder it, the better it fits. The recreational aspects of our National Forests are already heavily marketed. Pick up any local tourist guide like Summer Fun, and that’s what you’ve got. Watch TV for more than 20 minutes, and you’ll see a Spewt ad promoting the backcountry available from your “Ford outfitter.”

So in a commercial sense, our National Forests have been transformed from tree plantations into amusement parks. Like all the rest of us, the Forest Service wants to increase its income. It can’t do that by increasing timber sales these days, so it must increase “recreational sales.”

The new user fees don’t go to the federal treasury, but stay in the local ranger district for further improvements. So the Forest Service’s incentives change, from selling trees to attracting recreational visitors.

[Tracks to nowhere on Kenosha Pass]

That means our forests have to be made more “attractive,” as in constructing attractions — like the short stretch of rebuilt railroad at the top of Trout Creek Pass, or the restoration of historic buildings, or the signage to turn trails into educational experiences.

At some point, it will also mean marketing those attractions; I feel safe in predicting that within a decade, we’ll see ads on the Denver stations that urge visitors to come to the scenic San Isabel National Forest, with Colorado’s highest mountains, as opposed to that over crowded and overdeveloped White River National Forest along the I-70 Sacrifice Zone.

IT WILL ALSO MEAN more commercialization inside the National Forests. Money to construct the attractions might well come from private donors, who will expect to be recognized — in an unobtrusive way at first, perhaps, but more glaringly as time goes on, just like those sponsorship announcements on public radio and television.

And if there are enough such messages present at a site, then maybe you’ll get in free, as with those services that offer free Internet access providing you’ll put up with the advertising that flashes on the screen whenever you’re connected.

It will also mean more signs, more fees, more gated campground entrances, more service personnel (to ensure that we really do pay our way), more facilities, information centers, guided tours, and the like. And presumably there will also be more visitors — since more and more private enterprises (concessionaires and others) will be reliant upon competing for those tourist dollars.

All in all, it strikes me that we are doing to our forests what we’ve already done to the rest of America; they’re going to be less unimproved rural, and more suburban. They’ll offer more services, amenities, police protection, and neighbors than they once did, and less wilderness experience. Already we’ve got web-sites for campgrounds and reservations are recommended.

That’s the future of our National Forests.

Do I like it?

Of course not. For one thing, I like to go to the woods for a break from a busy world (Salida’s just not that sleepy any more). For another, I get this feeling that these Forest Service changes represent yet another plot by the development forces to run us out so that they can get a better class of people in here.

One attraction of our part of the world, until quite recently anyway, was the open space. It was free and accessible, and it made up for a lot in the way of low wages and cultural isolation. Or, as one correspondent put it in a letter she did not want published, she moved to Colorado 40 years ago from the Golden State because “here, unlike in California, one could take part in a great many outdoor activities and have a wonderful time without being RICH and COOL.”

I’ll freely confess that I stayed here after quitting my day job in 1983 because you could live a pretty good life in Central Colorado then, and for some years thereafter, without having to make much money. But costs have gone up here, and that includes the costs of recreation. The current user fees are just a pilot project, and there will be more.

We’re being forced to be like the rest of America, to spend increasing portions of our lives in “productive” activity, rather than wandering around the woods without paying “a fair market price” for this pleasure.

In recent years, mom and pop businesses have had to get more efficient, more competitive, and more market-oriented, in order to endure.

And now the same thing’s happening with our forests. Today, it seems like everything has got to be more profitable, more standardized, more regimented and less quirky than it was yesterday. As I said, I don’t like this trend. I preferred the backwater to the mainstream.

But I take heart in the fact that trends change, and sometimes what’s profitable changes even faster than trends.

A mere twenty years ago, James Watt thought that the most profitable use of our forests would come from selling them off to extractive industries. Now, that seems like a ridiculously short-sighted viewpoint — when we can make far more money renting them out to tourists.

But I suspect that when the gymnasium at the Marriot starts to offer a more solitary, less crowded experience than our forests at a comparative price — and when it gets easier to arrange a three day trip to Cancun including transportation, meals and hotel accommodations than it will be to reserve a campsite at North Fork Lake — than this latest trend will turn around. In the meantime, you can make your reservations to stay in a new, improved National Forest Campground by calling…

Oh, to hell with it. If you want a truly adventurous, free, unsupervised, outdoor experience, visit a city park.

–Ed Quillen