‘Hiking fee’ foes take up fight in valley | AspenTimes.com

‘Hiking fee’ foes take up fight in valley

The fight over a proposal to charge fees to hike trails, fish in lakes and visit mountain meadows in national forests is coming to Aspen next week.

A group that has persuaded officials in 10 Colorado counties to formally oppose most fees to visit public lands will also ask the Pitkin County commissioners to oppose the National Fee Demonstration Project.

“People really hate this program,” claimed Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition and a resident of southwestern Colorado. “Everybody hates it except the agencies that use it.”

The program, known as fee demo, was created by Congress in 1996. It allows the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to charge fees to visit a limited number of spectacular sites.

The Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District implemented the fee demo program at Maroon Lake in 2000. The funds that are raised are vital to maintain facilities at the world-renowned site, according to agency officials.

The fee demo program is facing intense scrutiny in Congress this year. A new bill in the senate would allow the Park Service to continue the program but end it for the other agencies. A pending bill in the House would expand the program and make it permanent.

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Malcolm McMichael, a Carbondale resident and fee demo foe, said he isn’t opposed to the Maroon Bells project as much to the implications of a permanent and expanded program.

“It definitely means any time you use public lands you will pay a fee,” said McMichael. He said he thinks there are residents of the Roaring Fork Valley who are concerned about fees on public lands even though the concept hasn’t received a large amount of debate locally.

“Although we’ve been sheltered, it is coming down like a freight train,” he said.

McMichael said he requested that the Pitkin County commissioners look at the issue of fees on public lands because of the bigger picture, not because of the Maroon Lake project.

Benzar said the Western Slope No Fee Coalition has diverse support, ranging from backpackers to four-wheeling enthusiasts, and from backcountry skiers to snowmobilers.

Benzar said the common complaints about the program include:

” Taxpayers get fleeced when they pay a fee to use lands they already support.

” Fees hit the poorest people hardest.

” Fee revenues make public land managers less accountable because they control purse strings.

” The program isn’t operated efficiently for any agency but the National Park Service.

The No Fee Coalition doesn’t oppose fees that the Forest Service charges at campgrounds. It also supports the program as implemented by the National Park Service, which has a history of charging fees and using revenues wisely, according to coalition President Robert Funkhouser.

The group wants Congress to allocate more money to the public land management agencies so fees aren’t necessary. The organization also wants the Forest Service to devote more of its funds to recreation programs and less to operating the bureaucracy, according to Benzar.

While the goal of forcing Congress to give more funds to the Forest Service sounds good, it isn’t realistic, said Martha Moran, recreation manager at the Aspen Ranger District and a longtime Forest Service employee.

“We’re never going to get any more money,” said Moran. “I’ve been doing this for 15, 20 years and it just keeps going down and down.”

She said the new bathroom and visitors center at Maroon Lake weren’t built with fee demo revenues. Construction dollars were specially allocated by Congress.

But the Maroon Lake fee demo program, which grosses about $120,000 per year, raises the revenues needed to clean the toilets three times per day, according to Moran. It’s also provided funds for projects that otherwise wouldn’t get funded, she said.

Moran and Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook will also attend Tuesday’s Pitkin County commissioners meeting to speak in favor of the fee demo program. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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