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Courtesy of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition

Congress Needs to Walk the Talk on Recreation Fees

On June 18, finally, Congress started seriously looking into the runaway recreational fee charging policy of federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service (FS), but it’s still just talk. We’ve had enough of that, so let’s just spike this pay-for-play policy, which is at best an extreme stretch of the legal authority given agencies by Congress–“given,” sort of, I should say, since our elected leaders never even debated it or voted on it.

The hearing, held in the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, chaired by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), was the first real look Congress has taken at the implementation of the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act (FLREA)–or Recreation Access Tax (RAT) to its critics, including myself, by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.

At the hearing, according to Kitty Benzar, President of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (WSNFC), the main nonprofit organization organizing opposition to the RAT, several representatives “expressed serious concern about recreation fees.”

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Grijalva set the tone by saying, “I firmly believe that the American public should not have to pay additional fees to have access to our world class system of parks, forests, refuges and public lands — whether it be listening to a ranger program in a national park, hiking the wilderness, or enjoying a picnic in the woods in a national forest.”

Grijalva also said the subcommittee has been “inundated” by calls from citizens urging Congress to repeal the FLREA.

From that point on, it was an uphill struggle for the two major defenders, Interior Department Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett and Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey. Probably thinking about their next jobs or upcoming retirements due to start when the Bush Administration’s reign of terror ends at the end of the year, they defended their fee programs, answered or sidestepped a barrage of tough questions from subcommittee members and then beating a hasty retreat.

Congressman George Eskridge (R-ID) told the subcommittee how badly recreation fees hurt Idaho’s efforts to promote and develop tourism in the wake of job losses in the declining timber industry. “We have attempted to adjust to this loss of a major industry by promoting a more robust tourist industry that in part relies on the public taking advantage of the recreational opportunities on the federal lands in our state,” Eskridge said. “The improper implementation of fees for use of these facilities not only is resulting in opposition and dissatisfaction from our Idaho citizens, but I believe will result in a decrease in use of these facilities by the general public, and will result in a significant negative impact to the tourist industry in Idaho, not to mention in the nation in general.”

Congressman William Sali (R-ID) joined his Gem State colleague in criticizing the agencies, noting again that his state has had a tough time recovering from the loss of the timber industry and that Idahoans weren’t being unreasonable by objecting having to pay to picnic or hike in the same national forests that “once supported their jobs, put money into their schools, and used to sustain their local economy.”

Continuing the bipartisan bludgeoning of the RAT, Jay Inslee (D-WA) claimed the national forests in Washington are “falling apart” and wondered why, despite fee revenue, roads and trails in the backcountry are not kept open and in good repair. He said that the national forests in his state are “a disaster from a recreational standpoint.”

Rob Bishop (R-UT) questioned why the agencies are spending fee revenues building new facilities when “we can’t maintain what we already have.”

Peter DeFazio (D-OR) expressed concern about the FS’s accounting for fee revenue, which he says is “disappearing into the maw of the bureaucracy.” He said his staff has been unable to get an accounting of $350 million in FS fee revenue. “The numbers just don’t add up properly.”

Several witnesses claimed the public has never had a chance to support the new fee policy, mainly because FLREA was attached to a must-pass, midnight-hour spending bill and never debated or voted on by Congress.

Both Scarlett and Rey disagreed, telling the subcommittee that there has been “ample public participation” in fee decisions, but California teacher and kayaker Peter Wiechers disagreed.

Wiechers told the tale of his efforts to obtain information from the Sequoia National Forest that have been “thwarted at every turn.”

“They (Scarlett and Rey) didn’t even stay to hear my testimony,” Wiechers observed. “As soon as they were done speaking, they left. I don’t think they care at all what the public says, and they sure didn’t care to hear what I had to say. It was just rude.”

Benzar took aim at the questionable legality of the FS’s use of High Impact Recreation Areas (HIRAs), widely used by the FS even though they aren’t authorized in FLREA. Within a HIRA, the FS puts up toll booths and requires a fee for entering the area, often hundred of thousands of acres, and for all uses, even those specifically exempted by FLREA from fees such as roadside parking, using scenic overlooks or driving on state highways through national forests.

The HIRA discussion lead to perhaps the most interesting exchange of the hearing.

Lois Capps (D-CA) whose district contains the Los Padres National Forest and Santa Barbara, where hatred of fees runs deep, asked Rey one of the best questions of the day. She referred to his testimony to the Senate in 2005 acknowledging that HIRAs were controversial. She reminded him that he had promised to submit all HIRAs to the Recreation Resource Advisory Committees (citizen committees set up by the FS) for approval. Then, she asked if he submitted the HIRAs and if they had been approved.

Rey said all HIRAs have been submitted and approved, but “that is not true,” claims Benzar. “I follow this closely, and there has never been a HIRA submitted for approval.”

So, like I said many times in previous articles and as is so clear by the bipartisan testimony at the hearing, it’s time to stop talking and start acting. I hope one or more of these obviously concerned members of the U.S. House of Representatives can back up their words with actions by introducing and passing a bill to repeal the RAT, something similar to the Baucus-Crapo Bill, S. 2438, slowly (too slowly, incidentally) making its way through the Senate.

To watch the entire, two-hour hearing, click here.

To read the written statements of all the witnesses, click here.

To learn how you can submit comments for the hearing record, click here.

To read more of my articles on the recreation fee issue, click here.

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  1. The Oregonian reports today that you can, for a mere $250, gain year long access to 57,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser Molalla tree farm, and, oh a bonus!, you can also access the co-mingled O&CRR;revested lands managed by the BLM.

    A $250 trespass fee, for that tree farm and BLM lands, for one year. And they just got their taxes reduced by $182,000,000 in the Farm Bill by the earmark slipped in at conference by Montana Senator Max Baucus. To an Oregon resident, I can find no difference between a Baucus ear mark and a rectal thermometer, as to where they might be found when not in the light of day.

    So, the question becomes, how much of the USFS access fee will the Timber Barons get? The Timber Barons are selling cutover lands and are being bought out in the Great Montana Land Swindle of 2008, by the trust sucking NGOs, using US Treasury backed bonds. Of course, all that land will then be sold to the USFS neatly packaged by the NGOs, and they will get millions in commissions, their pay from Congress out the back door, and slipped into the Farm Bill in conference by the good Senator from Montana who sent hundreds of millions the Timber Barons, the Rapers of our Wilderness Heritage, or so he will say out of the other side of his mouth when the occasion demands, and he needs Green money to campaign with.

    Somebody slather some lipstick on that senatorial pig, so when he is out there with the rest of the hookers pandering for money, he won’t look like the pretend cowboy his family thinks he is, and embarrass a real cowboy.

    The USFS has a long and hard row to hoe if they think the taxpayers are going to allow them to charge access fees and give tax breaks to Timber Barons in the same year. The stink from this is going to smell like a Crapo/Baucus bill, heavy to the crap. Cod help us if this is Democrat Leadership and the Promised Change. And I now have reason to believe that I have seen the future, and the Great Montana Land Swindle and Tax Break for Timber Barons is the future. Hang on, because it is going to be a bumpy ride.

  2. Point of clarification. George Eskridge is an Idaho State Legislator, not a Congressman.

  3. I am not surprised there is no House bill. I think the hearing was conducted in order to let some interest groups (in particular one small one) let off some steam.

    Looking through the links I am struck by how empty the arguments are for repeal of the fee legislation. The only one that is at all persuasive, and only marginally so, is that Congress rolled FLREA into an appropriation bill or something as a rider and did not have a seperate up and down vote. I only find that mildly interesting because the rec fee demo law was already on the books. Hell, the National Forests were established in 1891 by a rider too, so historically there is no great departure.

    I found much of the written testimony unpersuasive. And particularly, the testimony by Mr. Eskridge of the Idaho Legislature as it contained no facts, none, about any specific fee in Idaho that he could point to where there is a problem.

    Congress will not move on repeal of REA in anything close to the Baucus/Crapo bill because they have not solved how to come up with alternative funding that will provide the infrastructure maintenance and natural resource protection needs due to the public use of the public lands.

  4. So Baucus gave the USFS repair and maintenance money to his cronies, the Timber Barons. All got their capital gains cut to 15%, and that will stay even if a Democrat president does not renew the Bush tax cut bill in 2010. That is $182,000,000 for Weyerhaeuser alone in 2008. Add to that the half billion dollar PCT cutover land purchases, and there is always enough money for Big Business, but never any for Joe Blow interests.

    Replacing the money is a straw dog, and a tired one at that. Baucus/Crapo is giving money to Weyerhaeuser and having hikers pay. The Use Tax to pay for the Timber Baron Relief Act. Pretty simple politics, that. Take from the poor and give it to the rich.

  5. The Congressmen sponsoring this legislation and those supporting it are totally uninformed. Repeal of the fees would mean closure of many of our recreational facilities to include trails. This is not Forest Service “speak.” It comes from someone who has visited 153 national forests in 14 years and personally researched 2,400 developed NF campgrounds. And, anyone who thinks the Congress will increase the annual appropriations to USDA, Forest Service to at least make up for the loss, is “whistling dixie.”