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Watch Out for Those Recreation Fees


    Recreation fees. Are they the salvation for national parks and other public lands, or are they elitist, a way to restrict access to those public lands?
    In theory, our income taxes already pay for the management, operation and upkeep of our public lands. But of course, they don't come close, not with some of the budgeting, ahem, curiosities that we see coming out of Washington, D.C., these days.
     Don't get me wrong, I don't mind tossing the national parks, and national forests, a few extra bucks each year in the name of "recreation fees," comfortable with the knowledge that upwards of 80 percent of those fees will go to use right there on the ground. Hell, it even makes me feel that much more of an American, willing to dig into my pocket for a few more dollars to help the lands I love so dearly for backpacking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and just hiking across. Seems like a downright bargain, in fact.
    But think about the fee concept for a moment. What would you think if your bank, desperate for more revenues due to fiscal mismanagement or neglect, required that you continue to pay it a fee even after you paid off your car loan or mortgage?

    Granted, that's a bit of a stretch, but sometimes you need to stretch things to either prove a point or get folks thinking about something. It becomes even more important this year as a wide range of parks are increasing their entrance fees -- and cutting back services-- and when National Park Service officials in Washington are touting the "creativity" some parks are exhibiting by thinking of increasing more fees in response to dwindling federal funds.
    Are we steadily marching toward the day when, despite our tax dollars already going to the NPS, we'll have to pay a dizzying array of fees to enter and enjoy the parks?
    Scott Silver, the executive director of the public lands advocacy group Wild Wilderness, long has been warning about the slow incursion of fees being exacted from taxpayers interested in enjoying their public lands. He's kept a pretty good history of this trend, and its backers, as well. For example, back on February 4, 1999, there was a congressional oversight hearing into what was then known as the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. Among those testifying was Derrick Crandall, the then-and-now president of the American Recreation Coalition, one of the prime backers of motorized recreation in the parks.
    At that hearing, held more than seven years ago, Crandall stated that, "The recreation community enjoys free lunches just as much as any other interest group, but we have come to understand that it is hard to demand a great meal when you aren't paying."
    Definitely an interesting comment, don't you think, especially when you consider how fees in the parks are inching upward and how the motorized recreation community is campaigning hard to see snowmobiles become a permanent fixture in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and personal watercraft gain entrance into national seashores.
    The other day I became aware of a recent column that explores the concept of recreation fees for public-lands recreation. In it the author comes to the conclusion that, "Without sustained public outcry and congressional intervention, political appointees will continue to direct the management of our public lands down a disastrous path that leads towards commercialization and privatization and away from the 'public good' championed by Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt."
    "Once fully implemented," the author continues, "the socio-economic impacts of these changes will be catastrophic on rural communities where new tax prices will keep many folks off their public lands. Our greatest hope is for public land patriots to continue to work together to protect one of America's greatest birthrights -- freely accessible wildlands."
    We definitely could use some patriots now, couldn't we?


Kurt, one thing to consider with the fee issue is that they are not donation based, but instead fine based. For Forest Service and BLM lands, for instance, if you put off getting the proper parking permit and backcountry fee, you could get fined or even put in jail for repeat offences. If the program was donation based, then MT, ID, OR, CO, and countless communities across the country would likely not resent the program so much. And who knows, perhaps the agencies would actually receive more revenue. Would American's feel more American if we had to pay new user fees to send our kids to public schools and check a book out at the library? The rec. fee issue is I think part of the ongoing debate over what privileges should be protected as part of America's "public good". The ridiculous thing about this entire issue is that it’s occurring at all. Oil and Gas companies owe the US Treasury billions in royalties; we continue subsidize logging roads that cost more than the trees that are cut (and when the roads fail they destroy fisheries which in turn impacts the fishing industry); and we continue to pick up the tabs for cleaning up superfund sites for irresponsible corporations that take advantage of prehistoric mining laws. What I'm saying here is that our nation has more than enough money to steward it's parks and other public lands--we only need to start demanding that taxpayer money actually start benefiting taxpayers--and stop going to corporations that destroy our public lands. This is all of course easier said than done. However, if we stop expecting that our taxpayer money should actually be used to protect our parks and our recreation access opportunities, the commercialization/privatization attack and the on going starvation of our public lands will only worsen, while Exxon's coffer continue to grow.

Well, we all know that the Parks need money to operate - and as you have amply demonstrated, they need a lot more money than they are getting currently. The question, then, is should all American contribute equally to the funding of the Parks? Or should Americans who use the Parks contribute some bit more to the Parks than Americans who don't use the Parks? To me, at least, it seems eminently fair and reasonable to collect a bit from those of us who are enjoying the Parks than those of us who are not.

John, methinks you're venturing onto a slippery slope. Congress created the national park system for all Americans to enjoy and benefit from. It didn't create the system only for those who could afford the fees. You ask whether those who often or frequently visit the parks should pay more than those who don't? Well, should those folks who use the interstate highway system more than others pay more for that useage? (I know some Eastern states do indeed use toll systems to collect revenues, but Western states currently don't.) Should folks who use email more than snail mail pay less for their stamps? Personally, as I noted in my post, I don't mind tossing a few extra dollars to the parks or forests. But the Bush administration's policies and Congress's inadequate funding is forcing individual parks to slowly increase fees for everything from getting into the parks to obtaining a backcountry pass. That path, if continued, could eventually bar some folks from visiting these national treasures, and I don't think that's fair.

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