September 2009

Money for nothing

By David Feela

We’d paid our vehicle entrance fee at a local Colorado state park and I prepared to unhook the trailer. It’s only a 13-foot Scamp, so I can lift the trailer by its tongue and push it around by hand. Of course, we’d have to pay the camping fee too, but first I wanted to choose a site. I’d almost completed the setup by the time Pam came back from the bathroom with a surprising state park quiz.

“Guess what?” she asked.

I sighed: “Don’t tell me there’s a toilet- paper fee.”

“No, I saw a motor home with a toad threaten to turn the park manager into a dwarf.”

“Aside from warts, I didn’t think toads were dangerous.”

It was Pam’s turn to sigh. She explained that when a motor home tows a vehicle, the attachment is referred to as a toad, and in all Colorado state parks the driver must pay the vehicle entrance fee twice — once for the motor home, and a second time for the toad. Our trailer has no engine. It’s not a toad, nor are fifth wheels, horse trailers, toy haulers, or pop-up campers. These require no additional fees, and there’s so little left in this culture that doesn’t come with a fee, I felt like kissing my trailer.

But I didn’t want to kiss the toad. No telling what it would turn into.

RVers are justifiably upset. Double the entrance dollars per day for rigs to drive under the thin wire of what defines a vehicle is a tough act to follow. And what would the park personnel prefer? It makes economic and environmental sense to use a smaller vehicle once the motorhome has been docked. Of course, it might make better sense if the Chinese bought all our motor homes, like they’ve proposed with all our Hummers, but what can I say? I’m Scamping instead of tenting.

We have become a culture of feeloaders, which is not that different from freeloaders. By definition, a freeloader is “a person who takes advantage of others’ generosity without giving anything in return.” Colorado state parks, for instance, have decided — according to park officials — to stave off a $3 million funding deficit by increasing fees, which will mean “program reductions, small fee increases, and shorter hours at certain state parks.” More fees, less service. Sounds like a feeloader to me.

Of course, such tactics for increasing revenue are being used all across the West, and Colorado state parks are only following the corporate-thinking model that sectors of American business have been abusing for generations. It amounts to this kind of thinking: Generate more revenue by reducing the quality of the product, then passing an illusion of innovation on to the consumer, which is why we often find goods repackaged and labeled as “new and improved.” I wouldn’t be surprised if campers all across America find their sites reclassified as suites, requiring additional fees if campers occupy both the sleeping and kitchen quarters of their dirt.

I can also imagine a strategy that breaks down the concept of fees into their atomic components. When you see a park sign, you are assessed a recognition fee, which helps pay for the rising cost of advertising for our tourism dollars. When you enter the park, you are charged an hourly use fee, which offsets the hourly salary all park employees are still required by law to be paid.

Naturally, there will be an overnight fee if you intend to stay, and if you use water provided by the park, a water fee may be applicable. Toilet fees would be impractical, because nobody wants to encourage random peeing in the woods.

Maybe the problem with living in a fee-enriched economy is forgetting that the public is growing fee-weary. We are all towing that economic toad, and brother, it’s heavy. Isn’t it time someone concluded that a fee increase ought to come with some kind of improvement in product or service?

I mean, I like the advertised image of staying at our local parks as if I were camping in my own backyard, but really, I got my latest county tax assessment and I’m already paying extra to park in my own driveway.

David Feela is a rural dweller in Montezuma County, Colo.