Recreation fee program under scrutiny | AspenTimes.com

Recreation fee program under scrutiny

The U.S. Forest Service’s controversial Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, which helps operate facilities in Maroon Creek Valley, is targeted for reform or possibly even elimination.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis oversaw a hearing on the effectiveness of the program Wednesday in Washington, D.C., as chairman of the House Resource Committee’s subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

In a prepared statement, McInnis said the fee demo program is “falling short” of good government. He said he remains supportive of the concept of charging forest users in a limited number of special cases and when the revenues are invested in the areas where they are charged.

“At the same time, however, I have fundamental reservations about the Forest Service’s implementation of the program to date – reservations that leave the future status of the Forest Service fee program in doubt in my mind,” said the statement read by McInnis to the subcommittee.

The hearing occurred at a time when fee demo’s status is uncertain. The House passed a two-year extension of the program earlier this year but the Senate hasn’t taken action. If it doesn’t take a vote, the program will expire in 2004.

A bill has been introduced in the Senate to permanently authorize the U.S. Park Service to implement a fee demo program. Neither chamber has introduced a bill for permanent approval of a fee demo for the Forest Service.

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The fee program was approved in 1996 for a limited number of sites administered by the Forest Service, Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It has been extended four times but is set to expire in 2004 without congressional action. The legislation originally allowed the Forest Service to establish four fee demonstration projects in the country. Limits were removed and the agency now has 87, including the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen.

People who visit Maroon Lake by private vehicles during summer are charged $10. In addition, the Forest Service receives 50 cents from RFTA bus tickets. Those entrance fees combined with camping fees in Maroon Creek Valley raised about $119,000 for the Aspen Ranger District last year.

Former Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch said the program allowed maintenance and services at Maroon Lake that otherwise couldn’t be undertaken with the regular budget. He said reauthorization of the program locally should be a “no brainer.”

But the program has run into stiff opposition throughout the country. In Colorado, the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition has rallied opposition among 10 counties, numerous user groups and even environmental organizations.

The coalition contends that the Forest Service should be funded from the general budget and that recreation programs shouldn’t be short-changed by Congress. Robert Funkhouser of Norwood, an organizer of the coalition, said the Forest Service and other agencies want to “maximize revenues at the public’s expense. They will do whatever it takes to make a buck.”

McInnis labeled the Forest Service fee demo program “a lightning rod” of controversy. He believes that more oversight by Congress is needed, said spokesman Blair Jones.

The scrutiny of the program increased this year due to McInnis. He asked the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to analyze the program’s effectiveness.

The GAO released a report in April that concluded the Forest Service is spending funds raised by the fee demo program within the broad discretion that Congress granted. The funds are used to increase the quality of the experience for forest visitors and protect natural and historical resources.

But the report also found that there is inadequate evidence that the Forest Service has used the program to address its list of deferred maintenance projects.

Since 1996, fee demo has raised about $900 million for all four federal agencies involved. Legislation requires that at least 80 percent of revenues must be spent on the sites where it is raised.

In 2001, the Forest Service’s fee demo projects raised $35 million. About one-third of the revenues were spent on “enhancing facilities, protecting resources and enforcing laws,” according to the GAO. Another 29 percent was spent on visitor services and operations like trash collection. Twenty-one percent was spent on maintenance.

The remaining 17 percent was spent on collecting the fees, the GAO concluded.

Additional funds pay the partial salaries and benefits of people employed at least part time to collect fees.

McInnis said it appears from the study that between $15 million and $20 million could be spent on administering the program, which he labeled “troubling.” His statement said he wonders if the value is outweighed by the controversy it generates.

While McInnis talks tough about fee demo, Funkhouser said the congressman still appears sold on the program.

Funkhouser was invited by McInnis’ staff to testify at the subcommittee hearing Wednesday. While coming back to Colorado, Funkhouser told The Aspen Times that McInnis indicated after the hearing he still supports permanent status for the fee demo program.

McInnis made his statement even though he acknowledged “there is no support for the program in his district,” Funkhouser said. “He has no compulsion whatsoever to listen to his constituents.”

Nevertheless, Funkhouser is optimistic that the Senate will eliminate the fee demo program for the Forest Service, BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service, leaving it intact only for the Park Service. Opposition in the Senate is much more widespread than in the House, said Funkhouser, who has testified in or watched 14 hearings on the topic in the last 14 months.

“The whole thing is coming to a head now,” Funkhouser said. “Extension of the program is questionable, at best.”

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

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