Top Forest Service official says user fees ‘here to stay’
People who visit national forests can expect to pay fees more often at special attractions like the Maroon Bells, but access to the vast majority of the public lands will remain free, according to a top U.S. Forest Service official.Regional Forester Rick Cables said he believes charging user fees at a few, select sites is an excellent way for the U.S. Forest Service to stretch its limited budget. He points to the Maroon Bells as a poster child for the program’s success.Traffic to the internationally famous Maroon Bells is restricted during the heart of summer. Visitors pay $5 to ride a bus. Cables said 80 percent of the funds raised get plowed back into facilities and staffing at the area.”The results show – we’ve got a wonderful facility up there, we’ve got uniformed people,” Cables said. “We could not do that with appropriated funds [only], so the user-pay concept to me is actually well-accepted by the public. I think recreation fees, user fees are legitimate and they are here to stay.”Cables oversees all the national forests and grasslands in Colorado and four other Western states. He is in the Roaring Fork Valley this week to review operations in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest.Budget constraints
One issue facing the White River staff is a shrinking budget for recreation at a time when recreational use is exploding. The White River was the top-ranked forest in the country for recreational use but only 25th in funding last year.The Aspen Ranger District used to have six rangers roaming the trails to monitor backcountry use and answer questions from the public. Last year it had one roving ranger.”I’m concerned there aren’t enough boots on the ground,” Cables said.Appropriations from Congress are unlikely to increase, so the Forest Service is going to have to examine its budgets on a national, regional and forest level to come up with more funds for recreation operations in places like the White River, according to Cables.In addition, the agency will have to rely on volunteer groups and special funding initiatives such as the fees at the Bells, he said.
Recreation fees have been controversial since the U.S. Congress authorized them in 1996. The program appeared to be on the ropes this year until it received permanent authorization, with virtually no debate, as part of the federal budget approval.Critics contend the program is unfair because Americans have already paid and earned access to all public lands through taxes. The Pitkin County Commissioners took a stand against the fee program last year. They said they want Congress to provide the Forest Service with adequate funding.Public won’t tolerate broader feeCables countered that Americans demonstrate time and again they are willing to pay fees for using public facilities, like golfing on public courses. He noted the Forest Service cannot legally charge fees for all facilities and lands it manages, nor should it.Instead, the agency must “judiciously” select the sites where it will charge a fee. Typically those are heavily visited areas like the Maroon Bells that need bathrooms and a presence by foresters.Congressional approval allows a fee to be charged only when specific criteria are met (if bathrooms and parking are provided, for instance). Opponents, such as the Norwood, Colo.-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition, warn the program’s rules could change to require a fee simply to park at an isolated trailhead for a hike.
Cables said the American public would not tolerate that.”People in the West are not going to sit still to have to pay to get onto public lands, at least national forests, in my opinion, and probably BLM lands,” he said. “That’s a battle that’s not even worth attempting.”Cables said he expects growth in the recreation fee program, but it will be slow and new sites will be carefully considered.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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