It sounded like a reasonable idea: Charge national forest visitors to use public lands for their outdoor fun, and the problem of inadequate forest funding from Congress would disappear.
This was the thinking behind the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, a temporary program implemented by Congress in 1996. It allows federal land managers around the country to create public access fees to help finance their backlogged maintenance needs -- from campground repairs to visitor center construction and habitat restoration -- at no extra cost to the government.
In the years since its inception, however, the program has come under increasing fire. Critics call it poorly managed; moreover, they argue that instead of solving the problem, it merely shifts the financial burden to ordinary citizens whose taxes were meant to maintain and administer such public land. At the same time, the federal government continues to give generous subsidies to corporations that mine and log those same national forests. (Unlike national parks, which allow only low-impact activities such as hiking and fishing, forests permit a wider range of uses, including off-road vehicle recreation, logging, mining, and grazing.)
Nonetheless, forest fees could be made permanent next month when a special conference committee meets to hash out the details of the 2001 Interior Appropriations bill. The issue has never been formally debated before -- all the actions creating it were introduced as riders on other bills.
"This would be the biggest land grab in the history of the nation," says anti-fee activist Alasdair Coyne of Keep Sespe Wild Committee, based in Ojai, Calif. Like the Sierra Club and a growing number of public interest groups nationwide, Coyne's organization strongly opposes the program.
Forest Service officials insist that user fees are necessary supplements to government appropriations. The fees added $26.5 million to the service's $3 billion budget last year. Meanwhile, the maintenance backlog -- largely caused by forest budget cutbacks in the 1980s -- is estimated at $812 million. As a result, facilities have fallen into disrepair, trails have not been adequately maintained, and restoration and education programs have fallen by the wayside.
"From a testing standpoint, we've demonstrated the need for user fees for a portion of the cost out there," says Forest Service program manager Greg Super. "We're not charging exorbitant fees. We're trying to make this as painless as possible."
In California, the state with the largest fee demo program, the charge comes in the form of a $5-per-day or $30-per-year Adventure Pass. Several days of the year have been deemed "free days" by the Forest Service, in answer to complaints that the fees were prohibitive to low-income families. And in some areas, forest users can participate in volunteer maintenance projects in order to earn a free pass.
Nonetheless, the fees may be discouraging some people from visiting public lands. The visitor center at Mono Lake in California halted fees entirely when they experienced a 30 percent drop in visitors. Because of inadequate surveying in the years before the program was put in place, the Forest Service has no records that show whether or not total forest visitation has changed as a result of the fees.
In any case, the cost of the fee is not the main issue, says California Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who has co-authored several bills to end the fee demo program. "It's just not fair that my constituents must pay extra taxes to hike, picnic or see a sunset in our national forests while big logging companies receive subsidies for their activities on the same public lands," says Capps.
For decades, the Forest Service has sold timber to logging companies at a cost far below market rate, resulting in losses of tens of millions of dollars each year. Additionally, the 2000 budget included more than $35 million for timber road construction and maintenance. Similar policies are in place for mining and grazing on public land.
Environmentalists, naturally, balk at such expenditures. But subsidy advocates insist that loggers have as much right to public land as hikers.
"They were originally called 'timber reserves,' not 'national forests,'" says Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative, Dallas-based think tank. Timber subsidies ultimately serve the public by reducing home-building costs, Burnett maintains.
Also at issue is how the fee income is being spent. Five percent of the fees goes back to the Forest Service's national coffers, but the rest is returned to the forest that collected it, where individual forest managers decide how to spend it.
In the program's first year, forest users were outraged to find out that a large percentage of the fee income was going to the cost of administering the program itself. In California's Los Padres National Forest, for instance, only $7,950 of the $66,300 earned in user fees was spent on maintenance, habitat protection and restoration projects. The rest went to enforcement and collection.
Since then, some forests have come to do a better job of using the money for actual maintenance. Still, opponents argue that the fees create an incentive for forests to make maintenance decisions based on profit, not ecological need. Since environmentally destructive activities like motorized recreation tend to bring in more money, forest managers might be tempted to put their lands' ecological balance at risk.
Not so, says the Forest Service, pointing to the fact that more than 35 million acres on national forest lands are permanently protected from high-impact development because they were long ago designated as Wilderness Areas. That's roughly 18 percent of forest land; for the remaining 82 percent, no such protection exists.
To anti-fee activists, however, claims of good intentions are not enough. The first step should be a public conversation, says fee opponent John Sterling, environmental programs director of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. "This was implemented without any public input," he says. "The scary thing is that they're proceeding with the program anyway."