To Fee or Not To Fee?

by Jan Holt, RMC


Free access to public lands is our American heritage, representing a concept of freedom itself, but this could quickly change due to budget cuts and privatization. The Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo), now going on in some national parks, forests, and BLM lands, raises fees and introduces new ones for boating, hiking, camping, parking, and scenic driving. What would privatization bring? How many people can afford fee increases? Who should pay and how?

"Pay to Play" is too simplistic. Taxes have historically supported public lands for the public good. We all pay taxes for things we don’t like or use, so it is the same for public lands, users and non-users. Balancing the budget, at the expense of neglecting our public lands, goes against public support for the environment. That our budget cannot cover these comparatively small costs is a fallacy. And, it is an uncertainty that fee monies, which are promised to remain in the area where collected, will not still be kept in the budget.

Seeing opportunities here, and having financial and political clout is the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). It successfully lobbied for a private partnership with public land managers needing funds, creating the Fee Demo program. (The ARC includes over 100 groups such as snowmobilers, Walt Disney, hotel, motel, trailer, ORV and amusement park associations.) This is reminiscent of the days of US Interior Secretary James Watt, who underfunded and pushed to privatize, commercialize, and now, motorize our public lands. Do we not have in the U.S. enough roads, vehicles, air pollution, development, attractions, and amusements already outside our forests and BLM lands? Do we now need to let private, commercial interests develop, run, and profit from public lands? NO! Alarm bells should be going off for the Sierra Club and similar groups.

Our public land managers do need money. But, "Pay to Play" should not make hikers, climbers, x-country skiers, or birders feel guilty or selfish for participating in the oldest, simplest, and least harmful forms of connecting with nature. We pay certain fees already. Our low impact activities take no resources or money from the land. But, extractive, for-profit, high impact industries using forest and BLM land do not pay their share and are often subsidized by taxpayers. This, along with budget cuts and increased recreational use, especially ORV, leave public lands short of money. The ARC rejects funding through equipment taxes (binocs, boots, RVs, etc.). Many groups and companies, such as Madden Mountaineering of Boulder, and the National Audubon Society, support the excise taxes. The ARC does not, as it would weaken their position as a funding source.

The Fee Demo project will determine if the public will tolerate new and higher fees, but initial acceptance is giving way to protest. If we roll over on the budget issue, giving in to fees and the ARC, present and future generations will have lost a basic American freedom and be left with a much changed landscape. In l999, look for and support a bill in Congress to kill the fee demo program.

For dialog & info on states testing Fee Demo: http://www.wildwilderness.org, 541-385-5261; ssilver@wildwilderness.org, 541-385-5261; American Recreation Coalition: http://www.cais.com/arc/