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Fee demo program takes ‘public’ out of public lands

Sloan Shoemaker

The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program was initially presented as a supplementary source of income for land managers to address the backlog of deferred maintenance. It’s now justified to offset dwindling budgets. Huh?

For decades, Congress has been starving land management agencies, creating a budget crisis that deprives them of resources necessary to maintain basic infrastructure. This contrived crisis forced the Forest Service to seek alternative funding and a consortium of private enterprises (RV, hotel, resort, and

OH manufacturers), poised to reap great profits off public lands, had a ready-made solution – the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program – greasing the skids for an increasing role for private enterprises in public land management. Feel reassured?

Fee demo is part of a stealth agenda to transform public resources into for-profit enterprises. It is being implemented by an alliance of Congressmen hostile to the concept of public lands and a recreation industry eager to profit when Americans are treated as customers and asked to pay twice for lands they already own.

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Turning reality on its head, the Forest Service says “give us fees or we’ll privatize management.” First, this extortion is an abrogation of their responsibility to

provide for and protect the common good. And in reality, making fee demo permanent is precisely the privatization mechanism long sought by industry lobbyists. In short, fee demo is privatization, not its alternative. (See http://www.wildwilderness.org.)

Besides commodifying nature, fee demo is fraught with issues of inequity, unaccountability, misrepresentation, disregard for the democratic process, and incentives to prioritize revenue generation over land stewardship and public service.

The fee demo program was originally sold as a supplement to regular appropriated budgets, not a substitute. Now, the Forest Service says appropriations have been falling over the last 10 years and fees are needed to fill the gap. Can you say slippery slope? Reducing budgets and increasing fees is a self-perpetuating cycle. Were it not for fee demo, Congress could not de-fund public lands without evoking public ire. Fee demo is the problem, not the solution.

This lack of fiscal accountability permeates the program. Hearing an earful from constituents, Congressman McInnis asked the General Accounting Office to audit the fee demo program. The GAO found the Forest Service inappropriately subsidized the program with $10 million of appropriated tax money, accounting methods were inconsistent and subjective, administrative overhead costs went unreported, and vendor commissions for selling passes went unreported.

The GAO concluded the USFS has no mechanism for ascertaining whether fee demo lessened the deferred maintenance backlog nor could the USFS even accurately say how big the maintenance backlog actually was – the very backlog fee demo was supposedly created to address.

An oft-stated goal of fee demo is “enhancing the recreation experience.” Local experience shows that enhancement is an over-the-top, multimillion-dollar Flintstone’s toilet and a visitor center built in front of our premier scenic vista at the edge of wilderness. Fees encourage land management agencies into cycles of development – ongoing cycles of enhancements, leading to higher fees, leading to more development.

The Flintstone toilet is a classic example of this process gone haywire. The Forest Service claims fees are needed because there is no money. It petitioned Congress for $1.6 million to build an outrageous outhouse, yet no follow-up support for basic operations and maintenance was sought or provided.

It’s argued that the benefit of services go only to users, thus it’s only fair that users pay for those services. But, benefits do not narrowly accrue to only the immediate user. Public lands are held and managed in trust for all Americans. That includes future generations for whom we have a responsibility to steward these lands. Folks who may never visit public lands derive value from merely knowing that wild lands exist. None of these benefits are accounted for in user fees.

Fees are exclusionary and restricting access only to those able to pay is regressive. The stated purpose of the Maroon Bells fees is to limit impact by restricting access. Those who can afford the bus will take it. Those who can afford to pay the higher fee for a car will do that. Those who can afford neither will go elsewhere and that is the very definition of “regressive.” Americans already pay their fees on April 15.

The Forest Service registers payment of the fees as support for the program, neglecting to mention that compliance is coerced with fines and armed enforcement. When you paid to visit the Bells, you voted to make fees permanent. If you avoided the Bells because of the fees, it wasn’t counted as a dissenting vote. Furthermore, dozens of local governments and state legislatures are on record opposing the program.

Revealingly, proponents won’t debate the program openly. Originally slipped through as an appropriations rider, its been repeatedly extended and expanded via riders without ever receiving full legislative debate. Fee demo marks a dramatic policy shift in the way the public relates to public land and resorting to these scurrilous tactics is profoundly undemocratic.

We are the richest nation ever on the face of the earth. Our public lands are a model worldwide. Our annual economic activity is measured in the trillions. Federal budgets are larded with pork, subsidies, and handouts. We have failed as a nation if we can’t make it a budget priority to adequately fund the stewardship of an American birthright.

Congress, quit shirking your responsibilities – dump fee demo, fully fund land management agencies, and demand accountability.

Sloan Shoemaker is executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.


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