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Fees for public lands a medieval concept:Denver Post Editorial

by Penelope Purdy Saturday, Jun. 23, 2001 at 7:04 PM
Scott Silver" ssilver@wildwilderness.org

The very concept of paying fees to use public lands flies in the face of what these wide-open spaces have been and should remain: places that belong to the American people, where everyone has access and where everyone is welcome. The fee program turns that ideal on its head and makes the public's domain a private reserve. More below:

Pasted below is an outstanding editorial on the issue of Recreation User

Fees. It ran in today's Denver Post.

Newspapers all across America should be publishing similar editorials and we

need your help to make that happen. Please continue to send your local

newspapers Letters to the Editor. Phone the Opinion Page editor and tell him

or her why you oppose fee-demo. Request an opportunity to submit an 700-1000

word opinion piece. Suggest that the newspaper learn more and that they

write an editorial on this important issue. If you need ideas for your

letter, you can read dozens of letters at

http://www.wildwilderness.org/docs/letters.htm

Federal employees and recreation industry lobbyists have been calling upon

editorial boards for the past four years, explaining why user-fees are

wonder. They have been claiming that you, the public, simply love

paying-to-play on lands you own. Now it's your turn to tell --- the rest of

the story.

Scott

--------- begin quoted ----------

http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1002,154%7E48210,00.html

Penelope Purdy: Fees for public lands a medieval concept

By Penelope Purdy

member of Denver Post Editorial Board

Tuesday, June 19, 2001 - Get ready to pay through the nose to use your

public lands - and expect to see more commercial development and hear more

noisy motor vehicles in our forests, desert canyons and grasslands. Congress

is set to re-up the so-called Fee Demonstration Program, which requires

citizens to pay to even walk onto their own public lands. While the fees

apply to only certain locations now, conservative think tanks and big

corporations want Congress to expand the program and make it permanent.

Ultimately, if these special interests have their way, people may have to

pay every time they hike or picnic.

By making four agencies - the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land

Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service -

increasingly dependent on the fees, Congress will push the agencies toward

decisions that produce the most money, and away from the management choices

that protect the long-term health of the ecosystems. Wildlife habitat,

solitude, biological diversity - these crucial concepts are devalued in

bottom-line accounting.

The insidious policy was supposed to expire two years ago, but it's being

kept alive by corporate political forces who could profit handsomely if

citizens grow accustomed to paying for recreation on public lands. Advocates

include the makers of snowmobiles and dirt bikes, who want to see more and

more of the machines roaring along our back country trails; the

concessionaires who run for-profit campgrounds; and Disney. Gee, what a

theme park our wilderness areas could be made into, complete with Jurassic

Park-style rides! What profits could be made if fishing and hunting access

were reserved only for those willing to pay private-club level fees!

Far-fetched? Hardly. Consider this memo, written by the American Recreation

Coalition, the political group pushing for more public land fees: "Have we

fully explored our gold mine of recreational opportunities in this country

and managed it as if it were consumer-brand products? As we 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 consumer, is very different

from giving it away."

The first step, of course, is to get people used to paying for something

that is rightfully theirs to begin with - a psychological task that the

fee-demo program accomplishes effectively. After the public gets softened

up, citizens won't whine as much as the fees grow more expensive.

It's not just campgrounds and the like being affected. In one California

wilderness, citizens already have to pay just to day hike on the national

forest, and the waiting list for a reservation for a hiking permit is many

months long.

Regardless of what word games the bureaucrats play, these fees are entrance

fees, because if you don't pay them before you enter, you'll face major

fines.

When Congress started the program in 1996, each of the four agencies

involved could collect fees only at 50 sites. Now it's up to 100 per agency,

including five in Colorado, such as Vail Pass and the Maroon Bells. But

there will be no limit on the number of fee sites under a measure just

passed by the House Appropriations Committee.

When the fee-demo program was put in place during the Clinton

administration, it was heralded as a way to help fund needed repairs and

allow the areas collecting the fees to keep the cash. On the surface, the

idea seemed reasonable, but the real-life consequences are alarming.

Whenever public agencies become dependent on a source of revenue, they

promote that use over all other interests. For example, for years the Forest

Service's budget was determined largely by how many trees the agency let the

lumber companies cut. The result: So much clear-cutting occurred that forest

eco-systems were nearly ruined.

So now Congress wants to make land-management agencies dependent on money

from motorized recreation, concessionaires and other commercial recreation

development. What are the odds that the agencies soon will be promoting

loud, costly recreation, to the detriment of all other uses?

Despite the glowing reports that the agencies file with Congress each year,

even areas that collect fees still suffer from disrepair. Trails are poorly

signed, bridges are frightfully unstable, privies are overflowing and picnic

tables and campsites rare and often vandalized. Meantime, the fees have let

bureaucrats build an awful lot of fancy entrance stations and assign a lot

of employees to do nothing more than collect money.

The very concept of paying fees to use public lands flies in the face of

what these wide-open spaces have been and should remain: places that belong

to the American people, where everyone has access and where everyone is

welcome. The fee program turns that ideal on its head and makes the public's

domain a private reserve. It shreds the American concept of the wilderness

and other open lands as a national heritage, and revives the medieval notion

of the king's land - places where we peasants aren't welcome.

Congress should kill the fee-demo program. If public lands need additional

funding, then this Congress - which was bragging about a budget surplus not

long ago - should just budget the money.

Penelope Purdy (ppurdy@denverpost.com) is a member of The Denver Post

editorial board.

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