June 2006

Day-use abuse

By David Feela

If you enjoy getting away from the house, feeling refreshed by an hour or so spent in more natural surroundings, and unloading your burdens onto a picnic table, then you may want to be a bit cautious when you go to the woods. Nothing is so wrong with picnic tables themselves that their use should be discontinued. No exploited nation manufactures them for just a few pennies a day, and they aren’t made of sacred wood from endangered forests.

The problem arises when you attempt to perform the picnic function at an actual picnic table on much of the public land administered by the Forest Service. Get yourself situated, open a bag of potato chips, and just like Yogi Bear and his infamous sidekick, Booboo, the park patrol appears. But instead of trying to make off with your picnic basket, they’ll ask you to pay a $7 picnicker’s fee, better known as the Recreational Access Tax (RAT).

What’s wrong with paying $7 for a picnic table? Well, in my opinion, it’s really not enough. I would be more inclined to pay the fee if upon my making a series of, say, 10 payments the Forest Service would mount a brass plaque to the table with my name on it.

I don’t know why the Forest Service hasn’t started assessing daily viewing fees for standing near a scenic overlook, or for simply sucking in that clean Western air, thick with a priceless pine-scented fragrance that’s probably imported all the way from. . . California?

I mean, there are so many missed opportunities for raising revenue on our public lands besides this policy of picking on picnickers that I’m surprised the person in charge of determining policy for the administration of public lands hasn’t been accused of being thicker than wicker.

One complaint from park visitors stems from some misguided public impression that they already pay taxes for public lands, so why should they, in essence, be taxed again with daily use fees?

If I was the person in charge, I’d answer this complaint by pointing out how little money public lands receive compared to the U.S. Military, and if America wants to be a superpower when it comes to operating one of the hugest bureaucratic infrastructures associated with wilderness, why, then people better be ready to sacrifice a few more dollars. Our woodsy reputation is on the line. I’d say, America: exploit it or leave it.

Naturally, I’d say all this while smiling, nodding, and maintaining an even voice with a well-modulated feeling tone. After all, let’s not forget that wilderness bureaucrats are professionals, not simply habitat police. Seriously , though, I think it’s somewhat ludicrous to ask for a picnic-table fee while failing to consider the secondary needs of the picnickers, as if a firmly mounted picnic table somehow fulfilled the government’s responsibility. Where, for instance, are the salt and pepper shakers? And without napkin holders, any breeze scatters litter all over the park. You’d think for $7, a few hand-painted rocks could be made available for use as paperweights.

And whatever happened to the traditional red and white-checkered tablecloth, or the water jug, or those pointy sticks we used to hold over the flames to blacken hot dogs and set marshmallows on fire? Maybe the public would be willing to pay more if they felt they weren’t being charged for doing all the planning themselves.

Better yet, why not introduce an “Adopt a Table” program? It would be in the interest of bigger budgets and better revenues if we could break down the average mentality of thinking of a picnic as an impromptu excursion, a quickly planned and playfully executed outing where people grab some food and get together for spontaneous laughter and good times.

Rather, if we could recast this national pastime in the American mind as a lifetime commitment to the natural world, an event that is anticipated before the childbearing years and brought to fruition as the new family matures, then we could transform the typical “picnic” into a fine dining experience. We could even add a sense of exclusivity by establishing a star rating system and arranging for reservations.

I can already hear the afternoon diners scrambling for their cell phones: “Excuse me, we’d like a spot near that enormous tree with the pointy needles that overlooks the lake, please.” The maitre d’ would reply, “Naturally, and would you like your dirt with or without ants?”

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.