Senate puts nail in fee demo coffin
The U.S. Forest Service’s ability to charge special fees at 105 sites around the country, including the Maroon Bells, suffered a blow in the U.S. Senate Wednesday night.
Through unanimous consent on the Senate floor, a bill was passed that would reauthorize the National Recreation Fee Demonstration Program for the National Park Service but allow it to expire on Dec. 31, 2005, for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Senate has clearly drawn the line with parks,” said Robert Funkhouser, a founder of the Norwood, Colo.-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition. Funkhouser has testified in Congress on multiple occasions to kill the program.
The House is considering a bill that is the polar opposite of what the Senate passed. The House bill, which hasn’t yet been voted on, would grant permanent authorization for the fee demo program for all agencies.
Forest Service officials meeting in Aspen for a symposium on wilderness issues said Thursday they aren’t convinced the agency’s ability to charge a fee will be killed.
Steve Sherwood, recreation, heritage and wilderness resources director for the region that includes Colorado, said the Senate could still consider a bill specifically on a fee demo program for the Forest Service.
Bells out for bid?
Even if the agency’s ability to apply the fee demo program is stripped, there are other tools the Forest Service could apply at places like the Maroon Bells to raise funds for management, Sherwood said.
One of those tools is implementation of the Granger-Thye Act, which has been in place since 1950. Under that act, the Forest Service could put operations of the Maroon Bells facilities out for bid to the private sector, Sherwood said.
The Forest Service could dictate in its prospectus what operations the concessionaire would be required to undertake – maintenance and interpretative programs, for example. The Granger-Thye Act has a provision that allows some of the funds that a concessionaire would normally pay to the U.S. Treasury for the management contract to be withheld and used for improvements at a site like the Maroon Bells, Sherwood said.
Ironically, privatization of a site like the Bells is exactly what no-fee advocates hoped to avoid by killing the fee demonstration project.
The Western Slope No Fee Coalition and its ally, Wild Wilderness, contend that the fee demonstration program is edging the Forest Service closer to farming out operations of popular projects to the private sector. The ability to charge a fee for use of public lands is the first step toward privatization, they claim.
Sherwood disputed their outlook. “It’s just the opposite,” he said. “Fees allow us to hire people to directly manage the site.”
As the program currently exists, the Forest Service charges $10 for private vehicles to drive to Maroon Lake at certain times of the day. In addition, it collects a share of the $5.50 bus fare that the Roaring Fork Transit Authority charges for Bells trips.
Fees raised $123,000 for the Forest Service last year. All the money was used for operations and maintenance of the facilities there. Sherwood said the program enables the Forest Service to hire seasonal employees to undertake the work itself.
If the program expires starting in summer 2006, the agency won’t have the funds in its budget to absorb operations and maintenance of the Bells, according to Sherwood and other Forest Service officials. Options would include cutting back services as well as farming out management through the Granger-Thye Act.
In that way, Sherwood said, the privatization that no-fee advocates hope to avoid would become a reality.
Debate far from over
Funkhouser said he had doubts that a concessionaire could be hired to operate a site like the Maroon Bells facilities. He said a federal law, the Land and Water Conservation Act, places specific limits on the types of sites where a fee can be charged – unlike the National Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.
But Diane Hitchings, special use program manager for the Forest Service’s regional office in Lakewood, Colo., confirmed that Granger-Thye could be applied at the Bells. “That is a tool we could use.”
Funkhouser was unwilling to concede the point until he was able to do more research. If the act can be applied to collect a fee, Funkhouser said he believes it is the wrong way for the Forest Service to address its alleged budget issues. The agency needs to do a better job of getting the funds it has allocated to duties like maintainenance at the Maroon Bells facilities, he said. Other fee foes want Congress to devote more funds to the Forest Service and other public lands management agencies.
The fate of the fee demonstration project is far from over. If the U.S. House passes a bill that reauthorizes the program for all agencies, a conference committee will have to wrangle over the vast differences between the House and Senate versions.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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