October 2004

Fee foes decry passage of House bill

By Gail Binkly

The issue isn’t highly publicized, but for people who like to visit public lands — whether for hiking, fishing, hunting or camping — the Recreational Fee Demonstration Project is a major concern.

Fee demo was passed by Congress in 1996 and has been renewed several times. It was designed to provide more funds for public lands by letting certain national parks and other areas managed by the BLM and Forest Service retain money they collect instead of turning it over to the general treasury.

The program has certainly helped some sites. Locally, the BLM-managed Anasazi Heritage Center was able to start charging fees for the first time. Those funds have helped it offer many programs and exhibitions.

But fee demo is hugely controversial, particularly when it involves unimproved, open areas — not museums like the AHC. Many of us in the West would like to see the program go away or at least be severely reined in.

But on Sept. 22, the House Resources Committee passed HR 3283, a bill that would expand the program. As originally proposed by Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the bill would have required that Americans pay a fee to enter any public lands managed by the Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service or Bureau of Reclamation. A national pass costing $85 to $100 a year would have been offered, and anyone without a pass would be subject to a misdemeanor criminal charge and a fine of up to $5,000.

The bill was amended so that no fee is required to park at the side of the road or drive through an area. But fees for walking on trails, dispersed camping, and using facilities like visitor centers and picnic tables are still allowed, according to Robert Funkhouser, president of the grassroots Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. The national pass and the $5,000 fine are still in the bill.

Funkhouser said the way in which HR 3283 passed the committee is a lesson in how democracy can be subverted.

Although many members opposed fee demo, they refused to speak out. Why? Because Regula is poised to become the next chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. “If congressmen want to continue to get pork, they all knew they’d best not vote against his bill, no matter what they were hearing from their constituents,” Funkhouser said. “One man from Ohio who has no public lands in his district has more pull over these lands than all the congressmen in the West.”

The sole committee member to speak against the bill, Nick Rahall (DW. V.), said, “I have refused to support charging tolls on our interstate highways. That is what people pay gas taxes at the pump for. . . . Tolling is double taxation. In my view, the recreational fee program is no different.”

What will happen now is uncertain. The Senate has passed a very different bill, SB 1107, which lets fee demo expire at the end of 2005 except for national parks. It’s unlikely the Regula bill would pass the Senate as is, but if it goes to conference committee a compromise might be worked out that would be unacceptable to fee opponents. And the Bush administration supports fee demo.

Where do local candidates stand? Republican senatorial candidate Pete Coors has said he’s against it, according to Funkhouser. His opponent, Democrat Ken Salazar, said he didn’t know enough about it to comment.

Republican Greg Walcher, running in the Third Congressional District, has been outspoken against fee demo. His opponent, Democrat John Salazar, says likewise. Spokesman Jeff Bridges told the Free Press, “As an avid sportsman and hunter, John Salazar strongly opposes fee-demo programs.”

If you don’t want to shell out a fee and get a pass every time you enter public lands, pressure elected officials to end fee demo and fund our public lands adequately through appropriations. Having to pay to walk into the woods is just wrong.

Gail Binkly of Cortez is an avid hiker.