Maroon Bells fees are ‘lifesaver’ for agency
ASPEN – Federal legislation that allows the U.S. Forest Service to keep the fees it collects from visitors to the Maroon Bells Recreation Area near Aspen is being hailed as a “lifesaver” by White River National Forest officials in this era of budget cuts.
Every summer since 2000, the White River has collected between $100,000 and $185,000 in fees from Maroon Bells area visitors. Those funds are plowed back into operations and maintenance of facilities at Maroon Lake, and into tasks such as wilderness patrols and trail work in the spectacular backcountry surrounding the immensely popular destination.
Without the revenues from fees, the White River would have to stretch the recreation funds allocated from the federal budget much further. Operations at Maroon Bells would drain the lion’s share of the recreation budget, said Rich Doak, recreation programs staff officer for the White River National Forest. Other, less spectacular areas would be short-changed.
“I’d be closing a heck of a lot of campgrounds and other sites,” Doak said. He noted that the White River National Forest is one of the most heavily visited in the country.
Congress realized in the 1990s that it wasn’t appropriating the funds it needed for proper management of all public lands. In 1996, it created the National Fee Demonstration Project, which allowed national forests to charge fees for visits to certain, special amenities, like the Maroon Bells. Technically, the legislation also allows the Forest Service to continue the practice of charging a fee at campgrounds, a practice in place for years.
Fee demo gained long-term approval in 2004 when Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, commonly referred to simply as REA. It allows the Forest Service to keep the funds it collects rather than return them to the national treasury.
“REA is about survival in our recreation program,” said White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who oversees the 2.3 million-acre forest. “It’s a lifesaver, really.”
In 2010, the Forest Service raised $185,175 in various fees collected from visitors to the Maroon Bells Recreation Area, Doak said. The agency charges $10 per vehicle for trips to Maroon Lake, although travel times are restricted. It also collected 50 cents per ticket for the hundreds of thousands people who ride a bus to the Bells. Additional funds come from sales of passes.
The fees haven’t been raised in 11 years; Fitzwilliams said he feels the fee amount is fair and that most visitors are satisfied with their experience.
The fee revenues of $185,175 represents an increase of about 55 percent from the $119,000 collected in summer 2002.
The revenues offset some, although not all, of the expenses Maroon Lake requires to handle hundreds of thousands of visitors, Doak said. Some of the cost of overhead, like salaries of workers, is absorbed in the regular Forest Service budget.
The REA legislation requires the Forest Service to spend the funds in the forest where they are collected. It provides some flexibility on spending. The White River’s internal policy is to use the Maroon Bells revenues specifically for the Maroon Valley expenses, Doak said. “As a forest, we’ve kept really pure on that,” he said.
The only other place in the White River where a special visitor fee is charged is Vail Pass, a popular snowmobiling launch point during winters.
Doak said REA also is important because it allows national forests to keep the majority of funds raised through outfitter and guide permits and through fees for special events in the national forest.
All told, the fees from visitors to Maroon Bells and Vail Pass along with fees paid by outfitters, guides and special events raised $987,000 last year, Doak said. The White River’s total recreation budget from appropriations by Congress was $2.2 million.
The bottom line, Doak said, is this: Without the funds from REA, the White River would have to pare down its expenditures for recreation by about one-third.
The funds raised through REA are almost certain to become even more important to the White River starting in 2012. As federal budget cuts take effect, the Forest Service expects to see fewer recreation dollars.
“To say I’m concerned is an understatement,” Doak said.
But REA also has its critics: Some contend that the program fleeces taxpayers who already are paying for public lands. Other critics say the fees lay the groundwork for privatization of public lands. Other critics question whether the funds raised are being used appropriately by land management agencies.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., issued a press release last month noting that he has asked the Government Accountability Office to update an audit of the program; that agency has performed two prior audits.
Tipton said he wants an audit of REA to make sure “that government is using our federal revenues as efficiently and responsibly as possible.”
Tipton represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Aspen and Pitkin County. He wants aggressive cuts in the federal budget and voted against the budget compromise that was part of the debt-ceiling debate Aug. 8.
Tipton also indicated in his press release that user fees the Forest Service charges might be too steep.
“For many people, every dollar counts during this tough economic climate,” Tipton said in his press release. “Access to our open spaces and recreational areas should be as affordable as possible so that families, tourists and sportsmen are able to explore and appreciate our country’s unique natural areas.”
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