Congress breathes new life into fees for forest access | AspenTimes.com
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Congress breathes new life into fees for forest access

Don’t assume that a walk in the woods will always be free.A bill approved by Congress this week preserves the right of the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies to charge the public a fee to visit special sites like the Maroon Bells. In fact, the bill could allow the agencies to expand the recreation fee program to raise revenues.The recreation fee program was set to expire this year and was on the ropes due to congressional inaction. But approval for the program was granted through an obscure rider attached to a massive omnibus appropriations bill that was approved Monday.That bill is expected to be signed by President Bush because it sets budgets for most federal agencies for 2005.The approval of the bill could have major implications in the sprawling 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest, which engulfs Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley as well as Vail and parts of Summit County. The White River is the most popular forest in the country in terms of recreation use, thanks to millions of skier visits and a heavy dose of summer backcountry travel.Critics of access fees predict all forest users – from off-road vehicle enthusiasts to backpackers – will feel the program’s financial sting soon if they don’t already.”It excludes the public from their land. That’s grievous, obviously,” said Robert Funkhouser, co-founder of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, a citizens’ group based in Norwood, Colo., that has led opposition to access fees.He predicted that the days will disappear where backcountry travelers can simply pitch a tent at a nice, secluded campsite they find. Financial incentives will entice the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to reduce camping outside of officially approved areas, he said.”They will force you into sites where you have to pay.”Funkhouser also alleged that the agencies will either neglect or close heavily visited areas where they cannot charge access fees.So far, no fee is charged simply for access to a hiking trail in the White River National Forest. However, the bill’s language allows a fee to be charged if a parking lot and bathroom are provided. On general principles, the No Fee Coalition maintains that U.S. residents shouldn’t be charged special fees to use public lands since they are already paying taxes. The program represents double taxation in the critics’ eyes.It’s salvation for public land managers strapped for cash by Congress. Maintaining the facilities at the world-famous Bells would wipe out the recreation budget of the Aspen office of the Forest Service if the fee program wasn’t available, noted Rich Doak, recreation specialist for the White River National Forest Supervisor’s office.It costs about $130,000 annually to staff the Bells facilities and make improvements to campgrounds and other amenities. Right now those expenses are covered by the $10 fee charged to prime-time daily visitors during the summer.If the program didn’t exist, it would take about two-thirds of the Aspen office’s $195,000 recreation budget just to maintain the Maroon Bells facilities, Doak said. That would leave only $65,000 for the hundreds of miles of trails and numerous campgrounds and picnic areas.Doak said it is too soon to tell how the new bill will effect the recreation fee program. The Forest Service hasn’t conducted a thorough analysis yet because the bill hasn’t been signed by President Bush, according to an agency spokeswoman.The wording of the bill would preserve the access fee program for 10 years.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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