Will user fees make us into outlaws?

Essay by Mark Matthews

Outdoors – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I used to haunt the backcountry other people avoided. Places like the Grand Gulch in Utah’s canyonlands and the Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge in Montana’s Missouri River Breaks. I sought these lonely spaces, not because I was anti-social, but because I was poor.

No National Parks for me, except during the off season. Not even developed campgrounds. Many times, when every nickel counted, I drove into Forest Service campgrounds after nightfall and left before dawn to avoid paying five or ten bucks.

If I were in the same financial state today, I might not even be able to visit some of my old haunts — at least not legally.

The reason — more fees.

In December 1996, Congress allowed land management agencies to set up a three-year experimental fee system at more than 200 sites around the country. In some places, agencies raised existing fees, at others they collected first time fees for boating, hiking, camping or scenic drives. Congress allowed the individual forests and parks to keep 80 percent of the fees to fund a backlog of repair and maintenance work. Congress also agreed not to cut agency budgets proportionate to the supplemental income.

Early results show some experimental fee programs to be a financial success. At Glacier National Park in Montana, officials praised a weekend winter fee program that generated $3,645.

But the negative news went under-reported. Passengers in about 100 cars at Glacier on those targeted weekends, maybe up to 250 people, refused to pay the fee and aborted their visits. That worries Alan Watson, a research social scientist with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, a federal center located in Missoula.

“Just to say we are successful by counting the revenue isn’t enough,” Watson said. “We have to ask if fees are exclusionary. Are they changing the mix of our visitors, somehow. For instance, are we excluding people from the park because of income, race, sex? And will residents near the park stop using it regularly because of the fees?”

The new fee programs vary from site to site. In southern California four national forests banded together to charge $5 per day for a single Adventure Pass that allows motorists to park alongside the four forests’ roads. In the Shasta-Trinity National Forest of California, rock climbers must pay a summit fee. In Georgia’s Chattahootchie National Forest northeast of Atlanta recreationists must pay fees if they visit any of 41 specific sites.

Watson studies the impacts of fees on wilderness users, and he is finding out some interesting facts about that crowd. Last summer, overnight campers at California’s Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe paid $5 for one-night trips and $10 per person for longer expeditions.

Most wilderness users, it seems, are pretty well off financially. Of about 700 overnight and 500 day users who filled out the questionnaires, only 25 percent of the visitors reported making less than $35,000 per year, while 50 percent reported incomes ranging up to $100,000. The rest made over a hundred-grand.

Yet, about 37 percent of the responders, spread evenly across the three categories, said the fees were too high. An impressive 55 percent said they thought the fees were exclusionary for lower income people.

“There is a feeling among users that wilderness is real important to society in general,” Watson said. “They are saying that the possibility of restricting someone else is more important than their own ability to pay the fees.”

When reading through some of the comments, it became apparent that many people put a high social and philosophical value on wilderness. Some described cutting off wilderness to others like locking the doors to a church.

“Where will the fees max out? When only the rich and elite can afford to go?” — “I’d rather not see the fees go any higher, as that would discriminate against low-income users. Let’s not turn the Desolation into a forested Disneyland.” — “My main concern is not my own ability to pay these fees, but those who struggle to make ends meet.”

A few, of course, didn’t want to pay fees at all. “We don’t want to pay money, and we don’t need the government troopers,” one person wrote.

It seems many people recognize that charging fees for access to America’s wildlands is going to turn some law-abiding citizens into outlaws. We’ve got to make all Americans feel welcome to partake in our natural treasures without making them feel like cheaters.

Maybe it’s time to start financing our parks and forests the way we finance everything else — with taxes.

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana. He is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.