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End of fee program could ring sour for Maroon Bells

A skier heads to the Maroon Bells. Aspen Times photo.
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Management at the Maroon Bells Recreation Area might eventually be handed over to a concessionaire if the U.S. Forest Service can’t secure permanent funding, according to an official at the Aspen Ranger District.

Recreation manager Martha Moran said that if Congress strips the Forest Service’s ability to charge user fees at special sites like the Maroon Bells, it would create a financial crisis that might only be solved by finding a partner in the private sector.

Congress is pondering the fate of the National Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, which allows the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to charge fees. Land managers like the program because the funds raised stay at that site instead of going to the U.S. Treasury.

Foes contend Americans shouldn’t be charged twice to enjoy public lands. The Colorado-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition is leading a charge to get the “rec fee program” killed. The group contends that Americans already pay taxes so they shouldn’t pay a fee to use public lands.

A bill in the Senate would kill the program for all agencies except the Park Service. An alternative bill in the House would make the program permanent for all agencies.

The Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution earlier this year urging Congress to end the program and to budget more money to the Forest Service.

Moran said a resolution like that can impact the outcome of the debate because Pitkin County has such a highly visible fee demo project and is considered to be a partner.

About $123,000 was collected by the Forest Service at the Maroon Bells last year through a special $10 fee charged to visitors who drove their private vehicles there and through the feds’ share of bus fares. Camping also brought in revenues.

Moran said all funds were spent on-site, along with $5,000 carried over from the prior year and a special grant for facilities. A total of $153,000 was spent, she said.

The program allows the Forest Service to hire Peggy Jo Trish as a seasonal employee in charge of operations at Maroon Lake. She has a staff of five that helps collect fees at the entrance station, maintain the facilities, work with the public and police the trails.

Trish, who has worked at the Bells for 11 years, said some people pay the fee without a word while others complain.

“It varies. It’s about half and half. The locals are the worst,” Trish said. Many locals feel they shouldn’t have to pay a fee to visit the world-famous attraction in their back yard.

Moran said if the fee demo program is cut, which she believes is possible after this summer, the Forest Service couldn’t hire anyone other than Trish for its seasonal staff. The Aspen Ranger District would also have a tough time finding dollars in its regular budget to adequately maintain the facilities, she said.

The Forest Service has been cutting rather than adding dollars in recent years, at least at the field level, Moran noted. Critics of fee demo say Congress should allocate more dollars to the Forest Service, but that argument dodges reality, according to Moran.

“When people say, ‘Ask Congress’ – Congress is going to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any money,'” Moran said, noting there are other high-priority financial demands right now, such as the war in Iraq.

So if fee demo is cut, the Forest Service will have to ease back on management at the Maroon Bells, coax local partners to contribute funds for management or turn the facilities over to a private concessionaire, much like the Park Service does, Moran said.

She said she would personally “hate to see” a concessionaire hired to manage the facilities. “People want to see forest rangers there,” she said.

Moran and other Forest Service officials are meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners and other interested parties Wednesday in a work session to discuss funding options for the Maroon Bells. Moran said she would like to convince the commissioners to reverse their position on the fee demo program.

In the national arena, the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, and the Department of Interior, which oversees the BLM, are fighting hard to keep the program alive.

Testifying before Congress last month, Mark Rey, undersecretary of National Resources and Environment for the Department of Agriculture, said the program was vital for the Forest Service.

“The funds from this program have made a crucial difference in providing quality recreation services to the public, reducing the maintenance backlog, enhancing facilities, improving visitor services and operations, strengthening public safety and security, developing new partnerships, educating America’s youth and conserving natural resources,” he said.

The program, which was started in 1996, generated $38.7 million for the Forest Service last year, according to Rey. A fee is charged through the program at 105 projects.

Robert Funkhouser, a founder of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, testified before Congress last week. He said the Forest Service and other agencies should use their limited funds to concentrate on maintaining existing facilities rather than expanding. He claimed the fee demo program encourages development of facilities.

“Is the public really demanding that the land management agencies spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to build capital infrastructure to ‘enhance’ what God has already given us?” he testified.

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


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