Forest fees program revivedby key committee in House | AspenTimes.com
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Forest fees program revivedby key committee in House

Scott Condon

The U.S. Forest Service’s ability to charge controversial fees on public lands such as the Maroon Bells is at the center of a battle in Congress.The National Recreation Fee Demonstration program was on life support in May after the Senate voted to kill the program for all federal agencies except the National Park Service after 2005.But an important committee in the House yesterday approved a bill that authorizes the program for all agencies for 10 years. The House Resources Committee approved the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which would allow the Forest Service and other agencies to retain the current fee areas, such as the Maroon Bells, and establish additional ones.That bill prohibits the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management from charging a fee at places like an isolated trailhead, a bathroom or charge hunters or fishers for roaming broad expanses of land, according to a briefing statement prepared by the Resources Committee staff.However, the fee is authorized at a popular destination like the Maroon Bells, where there is parking, a permanent toilet, interpretative displays and substantial investment by the federal government, according to the bill.The bill passed by the Resources Committee would also establish an “America the Beautiful” national pass that would provide access to parks and other public lands for one year. The cost of that pass wasn’t set by the bill. The secretary of the interior would be given the power to set all fees.The bill was introduced by Ohio Republican Ralph Regula, who has championed the fee demo program since 1996. It was passed on a voice vote by the committee, which has 28 Republicans and 24 Democrats.It was amended by Resources Committee chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) in an attempt to alleviate criticism that cash-strapped public land managers would use the program to collect revenues for every possible recreation use and that funds wouldn’t be plowed back into public lands.”This legislation protects the public’s pocketbook, while enabling federal land managers to assess reasonable fees for specific activities and uses,” said a statement released by Pombo. “This will put an end to fears that federal land managers cannot be trusted with recreational fee authority because we lay out very specific circumstances under which these fees can be collected and spent.”But the House bill did little to answer critics who contend the fee represents double taxation. The Norwood, Colo.-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition has rallied numerous governments and citizens groups in mountain counties against the program.The Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution earlier this year opposing the Forest Service’s fee program at the Maroon Bells. The commissioners said they want more funds for the Forest Service from Congress so facilities like bathrooms are cleaned and trails maintained at Maroon Lake without charging a fee.There is going to be a lot of congressional maneuvering before the bill’s fate is determined. Matt Streit, deputy press secretary of the House Resources Committee, said it is unknown when the bill will be reviewed by the full House.If the House bill is passed, a conference committee will be called among House and Senate members to try to reconcile the vast differences in the two versions, Streit noted.Time may be running short on the bill this year. Congress is taking a break Oct. 8 for the November election. A lame duck Congress, in office between the November election and the new legislative session in January, could theoretically resolve the matter.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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