Fees Keeping People Off Their Land

By Beacon Staff

As noted several times in this column, visitation to our national parks has been declining for years, partly because of steep increases in entrance fees and annual passes. While reading these stories, we suffered under the misperception that the problem was confined to the national parks while visitor use of our national forests continued to increase.

Now we know the truth. The wild proliferation of new and increased recreation fees has contributed to a similar, if not steeper, decline in the public use of public forests. With this aggressive, if not abusive, fee-charging policy, U.S. Forest Service bosses have done a stellar job of discouraging people from using their own land, the national forests.

A front-page article in the Nov. 17 Oregonian exploded the myth and revealed that national forest visitation has steadily decreased since 2001, the same year the Bush Administration took charge and started implementing its doctrine of subliminally commercializing our public land.

A dollar here, a dollar there, and seven years later, we have a 13-percent decline in visitor use nationally. In the Northern Region (mostly Idaho and Montana), use went down 15 percent, and the Rocky Mountain Region (mostly Colorado and Wyoming) got off easy with only a 5-percent drop. The Pacific Northwest Region experienced the deepest decline, 27 percent, which is no surprise because that’s where it all started.

Back in 1995, during the Clinton Era, the Forest Service managed to tack a “demonstration project” onto a spending bill to test the concept of charging fees to use our national forests. The so-called “Fee Demo” program – or “Recreation Access Tax” (RAT) to its distracters – was initially restricted to national forests of Oregon and Washington, but after being renewed several times, all without a vote of Congress, the RAT spread to other regions. Then, in 2004, in the last hours of the 108th Congress, the Bush Administration added a rider called the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) to another must-pass spending bill making it the law of the land with no public input, let alone congressional hearings or vote. FLREA formalized Fee Demo as the official policy of federal land-managing agencies.

The result was a massive, nationwide expansion of recreation fees to enter and use our public land. In the past two years alone, the agencies have increased fees on 728 sites and added 232 new fee sites, but not as much in Idaho and Montana as elsewhere because of sitting U.S. senators who opposed the fee-charging policy.

The Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring Office prepared the report on declining visitor use. In the report and the Oregonian article, the Forest Service cited multiple causes, especially high gas prices, for the decline, even acknowledging (for the first time I know of) that recreation fees might have been a contributing factor in the decline.

But after reviewing the report, Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, the chief opponent of charging fees to use public land, questioned that reasoning and put more blame on aggressive fee-charging.

“Fees were already driving many families away from public lands, even while times were good,” she told NewWest.Net. “The economic crisis we’re facing now will exacerbate a very worrisome trend. Declining visitation is bad for everyone, including the Forest Service.”

Benzar said the negative impact is most severe in rural communities that are transitioning from a declining wood products economy to a recreation-based, tourism-dependent economy. “The end result is that both urban and rural residents, especially kids, will spend more time indoors playing video games or watching TV because it costs too much to take the family camping or fishing.”

“As the prices rise, the demand decreases,” Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness, another nonprofit opposing commercialization of public land, told the Oregonian. “Why should anyone have not expected that? If people are really moving away from public lands, who is going to protect them?”

Hopefully, the Blue Tide arrived in time to reverse the trend before it’s too late. I can’t see recreation fees getting much priority from President-elect Obama, who has to concentrate on preventing global economic devastation, but reversing the trend of overzealous fee-charging should definitely be a top priority for the new agency bosses he puts in place, as it should for the new, blue, 111th Congress convening in January.