Congress, Greens, Time to Spike Runaway Forest Service Fees

By Beacon Staff

The bad news is we’re getting older, and the good news is we’re getting older.

Nobody likes the older-slower-fatter succession, but at least when you get to be a geezer – and yep, I’m officially a geezer, so I take it personally – you usually have more time, but less money, to enjoy our public lands for camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, or scenic driving.

But not if the U.S. Forest Service has its way.

Back in 1965, the federal government gave geezers and people with disabilities a little legacy with the Golden Age and Golden Access passports that granted free entry to national parks and 50 percent discount for camping in national forest campgrounds. The Forest Service didn’t use many private concessionaires to operate campgrounds at the time, but those that were on board were required to honor these discounts. Now, the Forest Service wants to spike the discounts and free entry passes, which, at best, seems like a broken promise, if not breach of contract, for those who bought them. I guess the Forest Service defines “lifetime” as until private concessionaires no longer want it.

This geezer-friendly policy ended in 2005 when the Bush administration slipped through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, called RAT (Recreation Access Tax) by its detractors, I among them. RAT is a far-reaching piece of legislation affecting virtually all Americans, and it became the law of the land without a vote of Congress. Instead, in December 2004, it was a midnight rider on a must-pass budget bill that our elected representatives passed as they prepared to head home the holiday break.

RAT provides for the new America the Beautiful Pass, $80 annually. The law also allows a $10 Lifetime Pass and a free Access Lifetime for the disabled, but – and this is a big but – it does not require concessionaires to honor these passes.

Enter Corporate America. Forest Service officials now apparently believe they represent private concessionaires instead of the public because in December they published a notice of proposed administrative rule in the Federal Register that would essentially scrap all favors given to the elderly and disabled. Why would they purposely rub these constituencies the wrong way when politicians faithfully avoid doing so?

Because, as frequently stated in the notice, the Forest Service is concerned that concessionaires aren’t making enough money off public lands. Huh? With all the challenges facing public land managers, this is a priority?

In recent years, the Forest Service has been rapidly turning over campgrounds and other public facilities to private concessionaires. Today, incredibly, private concessionaires manage half of the 4,731 national forest campgrounds and 82 percent of campsites that can be reserved, often the cream of the crop. And concessionaires have the authority to charge extra fees, such as for parking on public land. And they do it.

The rub is, for private business, there are just too many geezers. Current age demographics conflicts with the public lands privatization and business plan.

Basically, here’s how it has been going for the past five years. Even though the agency’s funding has steadily increased, the Forest Service bosses continue to push its fee-charging authority as far as legally possible and when they get nervous about pushing the envelope, they turn over the dirty work to a private concessionaire. The result? The Forest Service now runs our national forests like a private business, but not directly. It’s on contract to concessionaires.

This trend doesn’t benefit the public, but the Forest Service apparently doesn’t care. Even AARP, probably the second most powerful lobby in the country (behind the NRA), voiced its concern for the new policy, and the entire four-member Idaho delegation has written Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and asked him to back off the proposed rule.

Meanwhile, sadly, all major green groups, including those that often voice concern about public access, continue to say and do nothing about the Forest Service’s abuse of its authority.

Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, have introduced a repeal of RAT. Regrettably, their bill has gone nowhere, nor has one of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives cared enough about access to public lands to introduce a companion bill.

It’s time for our senators to take a small break from worrying about the next election to do something that will not only win back some of the votes they’re losing but help all Americans enjoy a right we all cherish just as much as the Second Amendment – the right to enjoy our own land. Actually, it seems apropos that they simply attach legislation as a rider to the health care, jobs, or next war-funding bill and make it the law of the land the old-fashioned way – by not passing it.

Ditto for our green group leaders. Let them know that privatization of public lands is an issue worth their time and like our senators, they need to do something that benefits all their members.

And cross your fingers that the Forest Service has finally pushed it too far and messed with the wrong crowd. Let’s hear it for Geezer Power!