Is it time to pay for a walk in the woods?

Soon, taking a hike on public lands could land you in jail under a provision that was inserted at the last minute into the nation’s Omnibus Spending Bill.

The rider, inserted late in November by Republican Congressman Ralph Regula of Ohio, has widespread ramifications for public-land management, use and access. It essentially makes permanent the so-called Recreational Fee Demonstration Project and expands it to include all Forest Service, BLM and other federal public lands in the country. It also provides criminal penalties for trespassers — i.e., those who haven’t paid the proper fee.

Opponents of Fee Demo were dismayed at the measure’s passage, especially since it was added unexpectedly onto a separate bill, thus drawing little public awareness or press coverage and no congressional debate.

If the rider remains in the bill and the bill is signed as expected by President Bush, the fee measure will become law at the start of FY 2005 in September of next year.

Kitty Benzar of Durango, a co-founder of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, pointed out that the original Fee Demo project was passed as a rider as well in 1996. “This is no way to govern,” she said.

“This thing was shoved down the throats of Congress and the public and will mean less access to public lands we already fund through taxes,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the No-Fee Coalition. “It is a penalty for walking in the woods.”

But at press time, the massive appropriations bill’s final passage had been delayed because of concern over another provision inserted into the bill without discussion. This one would allow some members of Congress and their staff to view personal IRS tax returns, which had been off limits.

Congress was called back for a second session on Dec. 6 to fix the measure. Fee opponents were frantically calling their senators and representatives to try to get the fee language removed from the modified omnibus bill before it was passed.

“There is outrage across the country about what just happened, including among those who support fee programs,” Funkhouser said. “They have a chance to right a wrong and there is a chance that they just might.”

Possible site closures

A rider is a political maneuver that attaches controversial legislation onto a non-related bill in the hopes it will go unnoticed and be passed without a separate vote. In this case the bill was attached to the nation’s 3,300-page appropriations bill, which if not passed causes a temporary government shutdown.

The fee language came from a bill proposed by Regula, HB 3283, which had passed a House committee last session but appeared doomed before the full Congress. Regula has no public lands in his district.

The measure provides for an “America the Beautiful Pass” costing up to $100 annually that would allow people access onto all federal public lands. Those who do not have a pass face Class B misdemeanor charges, with fines of up to $5,000 plus jail time.

The language doesn’t require fees on all federal public-land sites, but allows agencies to implement them if they want.

Fee Demo — a temporary project that originally allowed public-land managers to charge fees at some new sites and keep the money at the site — has faced growing opposition the last couple of years because of public discontent and a lack of financial accountability for the fees collected.

The Montezuma and La Plata county commissions have passed non-binding resolutions opposing the program. The San Juan County, Utah, commissioners, the Colorado legislature, and many other Western entities have done so as well.

“The public just basically hates it,” Benzar said.

The U.S. Senate had passed a very different bill in the just-ended regular session that would have halted the Fee Demo program except in national parks.

However, Fee Demo has the support of Washington, including Interior Secretary Gale Norton and top brass at the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Grand Junction), who is leaving office, had supported it, but his replacement, John Salazar, does not.

Under the measure supported by Regula, the public will pay to enter federal lands for any reason, from hiking, biking and mere driving to hunting, four-wheeling or boating.

This is a fundamental change from the traditional method of using tax dollars to fund management of public lands that are not national parks or fee areas. Under the new law, Forest Service and BLM districts must operate under the premise of full cost recovery, showing that the fees collected cover their costs of maintaining the facilities and roads of particular sites.

If not, the areas in question could be closed to the public, a situation many observers expect to happen.

In the July newsletter of the National Forest Recreation Association, Sally Collins, deputy chief of the Forest Service, reported that the public can expect closures across the board from trailheads and roads to entire areas if those areas cannot show they are making a profit under the expanded fee program.

‘Stabbed in the back’

The fee program’s future was being negotiated in good faith by advocates and critics when Regula got the rider inserted into the omnibus bill, opponents say. Funkhouser and others concerned about public access were working with Congress to trim fees in the Regula bill and eliminate the harsh criminal penalties.

Regula’s proposal and the Senate’s different measure would have been sent to committees for negotiations. Regula’s move to get his bill inserted it into the omnibus measure came as a surprise.

People such as Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who had been working toward a compromise, were outraged, Benzar said. “They thought they had a deal, and they were stabbed in the back on this one.”

Regula could not be reached for comment, but fee proponents maintain the money is needed to help improve and care for public lands.

If the measure remains in the omnibus bill and is passed, opponents will seek legislation in January to have it repealed before it takes effect.

“To put the burden of funding public-land management agencies on the backs of local residents is beyond comprehension and we will fight this,” Funkhouser said.

But even if the measure were removed from the omnibus bill at the last minute, Regula will seek to have HR 3283 passed in the next session as a separate bill.

The No-Fee Coalition is careful to point out that local land managers are not to blame for expanded fee programs. What is happening, Funkhouser said, is at a national level.

Congress is cutting funding for management of public lands, “leaving local managers caught in a bind where they have to rely on more fees, but are stuck with a hostile public opposed to fee programs.”

Benzar agreed. “The managers of the San Juan National Forest, God bless them, have never really liked Fee Demo,” she said. “They have never been quick to jump on the bandwgon.”

Funkhouser said that fee programs are supposed to augment federal budget cuts to land-management agencies. But because the infrastructure to administer fee collection and enforcement — toll booths, signage and more rangers — is so expensive, the opposite happens: limited federal funding ends up augmenting fee collection.

More rangers on patrol

Already there is talk in Washington of the “build it and they will come” philosophy, whereby certain areas of public lands will be heavily developed with infrastructure to lure visitors. The costs would be so high that other federal lands previously open to the public could be closed off.

The language in Regula’s bill says minimal amenities must be present on sites where fees are charged, Benzar said, “so you’re going to see a program of developing amenities on public lands like you’ve never seen.”

Mark Gray, undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, which manages the Forest Service, and Interior Department Undersecretary Lynn Scarlett have testified that the public does not know the difference between national parks, Forest Service lands and BLM areas, so they all should be managed in the same way as fee-laden national parks, according to testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee.

Many people wonder how the federal government can control access onto closed areas or enforce fees on vast tracts of public land with many access points. The draconian answer, according to Funkhouser, is “more rangers patrolling public lands to force compliance through fear.”

Benzar agreed. “Once they charge a fee just to enter the forest, it will make enforcement cheap and easy,” she said. “They won’t have to prove you were visiting a particular picnic site or trail, you’ll have to show you have a pass just to enter an area. They’ll ticket cars – they can ticket the owner, occupants and driver.”

Roughly 250,000 people have reportedly been ticketed for violating the “Adventure Pass,” a similar access pass required on many public lands in California.

Having the fee program suddenly revived just when opponents thought it was ending was discouraging, Benzar said.

“We’ve been fighting this for eight years,” Benzar said. “I’m really tired of this battle.”

From December 2004.