Paying to play won’t fly in Pitco | AspenTimes.com

Paying to play won’t fly in Pitco

Intense lobbying by citizens helped convince the Pitkin County commissioners yesterday to join the fight against a federal government program that charges fees to visit national forests and other public lands.

The commissioners said they will prepare a resolution later this month opposing the national Recreation Fee Demonstration Project. They will urge Colorado’s congressional delegation to more fully fund public land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service so fees aren’t necessary.

A representative of the Forest Service and critics of the fee program disagreed during the commissioners’ meeting over the potential of the program to grow.

Martha Moran, recreation manager for the Aspen Ranger District, said fees will be used in just a few special cases, like access to Maroon Lake. She claimed the public doesn’t have to worry about facing a fee simply to hike a favorite trail in the forests around Aspen.

“We’re not going to charge for hiking,” said Moran. “We tested it. It’s not a good idea.”

Moran said the Forest Service released a report about a year ago that outlines its blueprint for charging fees.

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Critics contended that the Forest Service’s blueprint and legislators’ visions don’t match.

“Sooner or later you will be asked to pay to do it all,” claimed Malcolm McMichael, a Carbondale resident and opponent of fees to use public lands.

McMichael noted that the Forest Service already approved a program that allows Copper Mountain ski resort to charge $120 per day for skiers and riders to go to the front of chairlift lines.

The test that won’t die

Opposition to forest fees is being led by the Western Slope No Fee Coalition. Co-founder Kitty Benzar told the county commissioners that the program was created in 1996 as a two-year test. Eight years later it is still alive, although no public hearings have been held.

The program allows the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to charge fees for visitors to special sites. A bill being debated in the U.S. Senate would kill the program for all agencies except the National Park Service.

Benzar claimed the agencies are lobbying hard to keep the entire program alive. She said that an “informant” for the coalition said an amendment might be proposed to charge $85 for a special pass that would allow access to public lands.

“They would call it the America the Beautiful Pass because it sounds warm and fuzzy,” she said.

Spurring development?

Aspen environmentalist Charlie Hopton said the fee demo program is flawed in Aspen, where the Forest Service uses it to charge $10 for vehicular access to Maroon Lake. That fee is “out of proportion” when compared to the Forest Service’s timber sales that lose money and nominal fee of $1.35 to allow a cow and calf to graze on national forest lands, he said.

Aspenite Annette Keller, a self-titled “fierce opponent of fee demo,” said the theory of having users “pay to play” sounds good but creates conflicts with the Forest Service’s mandate to manage public lands.

Congress has created a profit motive for the Forest Service and other agencies, Keller reasoned. The agencies have an incentive to come up with a reason to charge people to visit a site. To get a site up to snuff, the Forest Service builds or enhances facilities at places like Maroon Lake.

“It’s going to cause us to develop our public lands,” said Keller.

Forester Moran disputed the claim. She said Congress regularly awards funds to build facilities through standard budgets. The Maroon Lake bathroom and visitors center were funded through special appropriations.

The problem is the agency often doesn’t have the funds to properly run and maintain those facilities. The fee demo program is critical to clean the toilets and rebuilt campgrounds in Maroon Creek Valley, she said.

“If we don’t charge fees, how do we manage the Maroon Bells?” Moran asked.

Nearly every speaker said they were sympathetic to the Forest Service’s dilemma. The agency isn’t receiving enough funds from Congress so public land managers covet the special fund-raising programs like fee demo.

McMichael said the dilemma doesn’t justify creation of a bad program. “If you’re starving, is it legitimate to steal?” he asked.

The commissioners clearly didn’t think it was. They said they couldn’t support the fee demo program, but didn’t want it to be construed as opposition to the local Forest Service office.

Bill Westbrook, district ranger in both Aspen and Carbondale, said it’s impossible to tell how the fee demo issue will turn out. “A lot of this is going to play out in an arena way above us,” he said.

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

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