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For five years, I've been railing against the recreational fee frenzy going on within the Forest Service, and after reading hundreds of comments (online and offline), I've noticed a common theme that I should address. Why, many commenters ask, am I so concerned about these relatively small, pay-for-play fees when we're facing colossal environmental issues such as climate change, roadless lands protection, mining law reform, and energy development? My answer is, this is big, too. The trend toward more and larger recreation fees fits perfectly with the plans of those who would like nothing better than to privatize our public lands.

Recreation Fees Big Part of Public Land Privatization Plan

For five years, I’ve been railing against the recreational fee frenzy going on within the Forest Service, and after reading hundreds of comments (online and offline), I’ve noticed a common theme that I should address. Why, many commenters ask, am I so concerned about these relatively small, pay-for-play fees when we’re facing colossal environmental issues such as climate change, roadless lands protection, mining law reform, and energy development?

My answer is, this is big, too. The trend toward more and larger recreation fees fits perfectly with the plans of those who would like nothing better than to privatize our public lands.

I know it only seems like a measly $5 here or $25 there, but it’s the old nibbled-to-death strategy–you hardly notice it happening until one day, you realize you can no longer find an affordable place to hike or hunt or camp. Interestingly, I believe every major green group opposes privatizing public lands, yet not one does or says anything about this obvious attempt to do it. Go figure.

The primary voice among the green community comes from a tiny nonprofit called Wild Wilderness. Here, executive director Scott Silver serves the role of that proverbial voice in the wilderness nobody seems to hear.

Not a believer? Consider this admission by Warren Meyer, a board member of the National Forest Recreation Association (NFRA), the main lobby for private concessionaires. On his personal blog, he stated: “As many of you know, I am in the business of privatizing public recreation.”

That revealing quote is just one little gem in a massive treasure chest of documentation Silver has amassed on how recreation fees foreshadow public land privatization. I wish I had space for more of it here, but you can see it all on his website.

The privatization agenda was the vision of President Ronald Reagan and was first implemented by former FS Chief Dale Robertson with major help from the main lobby for privatization, the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). For the past 30 years, with the ARC and NFRA leading the way, private concessionaires have exerted increasing pressure upon the FS to privatize public recreation, and it’s working.

A recent controversy over a proposed rule change cutting discounts and passes for seniors and the disabled is simply into another step toward ultimate goal of privatization of public recreation. It does so by lowering the bar for the creation of new recreation fee sites and allowing concessionaires to charge for, and retain, more fees at these new sites and current sites.

Concerning this current red alert over the Forest Service’s attempt to renege on “lifetime” promises given senior and disabled public land users and the Idaho congressional delegation’s opposition to it, Silver has a more sweeping viewpoint.

He applauds the Idaho delegation jumping in to oppose the proposed rule, but he would’ve preferred they be “more forceful” in pointing out the more “profound impacts,” such as the fact the proposed rule hurts everybody, not just the elderly and disabled, and that it’s all about “more privatization.”

“The proposed rule change is not merely a reprehensible denial of implied privilege,” he told NewWest.Net, in an email, “it is flagrantly illegal.”

In his official comments on the proposed rule, he provided detailed documentation as to why the proposed rule is not only a broken promise, but it also violates the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), the authority the FS uses–or more accurately, misuses–to charge more and higher fees.

Silver also contends that the proposed rule is the result of closed door meetings between the FS and special interest organizations such as the ARC and is a direct response to pressure from concessionaire “partners” who only want more profit off public lands. The FS, he insists, has a “greater allegiance” to private concessionaires than to the public the agency is supposed to serve.

Even worse, Silver believes the plan to ax senior discounts is meant to attract the public’s outrage and hide real goal–allowing concessionaires to charge more and higher fees for everybody. He predicts political pressure will prompt the FS to compromise and continue to give seniors and the disabled some reduced discounts to make it appear like a victory for the public. Meanwhile, the FS will get what it really wants–more latitude for concessionaires to charge fees and make more profit off managing public recreation.

And as noted frequently in my past columns, there’s also the issue of double taxation. We pay for the privilege to use our public lands every year on April 15, which has been the main impetus behind S. 868, a bill introduced by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) to repeal FLREA.

(Incidentally, just in case you’re wondering why we see fewer recreation fees in the National Forests of Idaho and Montana than everywhere else, I’m sure it has something to do with FS bosses trying to avoid controversy in the districts of these two powerful senators.)

So what’s the answer?

For starters, tacking S. 868 onto the next must-pass legislation as a rider would certainly do the trick, but we also need two more things to happen.

First, Congress needs to replace the fee income within the appropriations process to take pressure off FS employees to make more money on fees and concessions to save their jobs, and second, the Obama administration needs to put both feet on the administrative brakes to stop the reckless rush to hire private concessionaires to manage on our National Forests.

Exact figures are elusive, but roughly, the FS takes in $62 million per year in recreation fees and hardly any revenue from private concessionaires (another story for another time). I must ask, is this really a lot of money by federal budget standards? Let’s put $62 million in perspective.

Today, we can instantly find billions to fight endless wars (a trillion+ so far), bail out the too-big-to-fail banks (aka Wall Street Casinos), and provide unbudgeted federal aid for natural disasters. My pet evil, Goldman Sachs, makes a $41 million profit every day, even on weekends, and $62 million would just barely cover three years of Wells Fargo boss John Stumpf’s annual compensation. Getting out of the Middle East Wars one day early would save $42 million, so let’s leave two weeks earlier and replace FS recreation fee income for the next decade or more.

Come on, Congress. How hard is this? Just put it in the budget and do something for all of us. That’s only $116,000 per each of the 535 congressional and senatorial districts.

If you really need to raise my income taxes 0.001 percent to cover the cost, hey, go for it. This shouldn’t be necessary, but I’d willing to pay a little more as long as it’s on tax day instead of an extra five bucks at the next toll booth I see on a FS road.

But I’d prefer something like a 90 percent tax on any form of annual income over $500,000, all earmarked for managing public recreation on public lands by public employees. Or better yet, build five instead of the six nuclear submarines currently under construction, which would save enough to reimburse the FS for lost fee income for the rest of the 21st Century. Are nuclear subs really a good investment in the future compared to keeping public lands public?

As I write this, the Obama administration is hardly blinking at spending $200 million per year for several years to put just one terrorist on trial in New York City, with lots more terrorists waiting for their years in court. At least 20 states haven’t even accepted $5 billion each in federal stimulus funds because they have to match it, so that’s something like a $100 billion just sitting there for the taking. Meanwhile, we can’t find $62 million in a $2.65 trillion budget to stop the privatization of our public lands?

The point is, we can find this money. If our elected representatives don’t do it and our major green groups won’t even make it a priority issue, well, I guess we Americans can assume they favor privatizing our public lands.

Footnote: For more NewWest.Net coverage of the recreation fee issue, click here.

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  1. Hey Bill,

    Thanks for the article! I know that there are plenty of people who would be willing to help out, they just need to know what to do to have the biggest and best impact.

    You’ve made it clear that the costs to fund our public lands is minimal, especially in comparison to some obviously wasteful, current, budget and even non budgeted items. But, you’ve missed on the call to action.

    Sure, “tacking S. 868 onto the next must-pass legislation as a rider would certainly do the trick, but we also need two more things to happen” is a clear order, but most folks, myself included, don’t know where to begin….that’s another conversation.

    In the mean time, who are the people in congress that we need to contact to voice our demands? Perhaps a small list of things we can do or even a few links to the right people might be a good idea.

  2. “Below-cost recreation sales”??? *smirks*

  3. Without the information that prices convey, federal public land managers have not idea what priorities to emphasize. Hence, the political process will make management decisions.

  4. The only information prices convey is that human greed is alive and well.


  5. Good job, Bill. This privatization of public lands via fees and other bogus charges is not only double taxation of us as citizens, it is also the companion half of the overall effort to rip off and degrade the little that remains of our truly wild country represented by phony “wilderness” bills like the current Tester scam that are really welfare giveaways to moribund extractive industries.

    The Corporate Tyranny that owns our country and its government is determined to appropriate all remaining public resources for their private profit. It’s an undeclared war Americans, most of whom are sleeping through it, have already largely lost.

    Your article should run nationally but that won’t happen. The Corporate Tyranny owns all the media outlets and they don’t want any truth to leak out on this issue.

    Paul Edwards

  6. good article…Makes me think about all this ginned up anti Govt sentiment….
    *private Business can do it better!<----who promotes that? someone with much to gain. where does the forest jobs bill...with Tester fit in on all this??

  7. I agree with the other Aaron, Bill.

    What should we do? How do we stop the take over of our land. How do we educate those who are naive, not necessarily out of stupidity or sleepiness, but because they live far from the issues and therefore are not connected. For example, people on the east coast care more about traffic and terrorism then beetle kill and the loss of public land because these are the things that affect their daily lives. Also, one might add, they accept toll roads so why not put a toll on land usage.

    I think most of us are aware of the problems and the corporate takeover of our lives but lack the tools to fight.

  8. Everybody wants something for nothing or next to nothing; recreationists included. I am senior but wonder why should just being old be a basis for someone else subsidizing what I can and should pay for. The notion of being taxed twice when having to pay for certain uses of federal facilities is poppycock. It would only have validity if one was personally paying enough taxes to cover what they were receiving. They are not. Some would be happy with the government running everything and, of course have someone else pay for it, and have nasty, profit making private enterprise done away with…not me.

  9. What ever happened to the days of being able to leave your house without having to pay for EVERYTHING? Public land is not a product to be consumed. Public land is priceless, and the fact that somebody wants to put a price it degrades this value and is insulting to many people’s core values.

    I don’t have a problem with private enterprise – I have a problem with the private enterprise manipulating government rules and laws so as to dip into my pocket to make profit. It’s unethical and smells of the devil.

  10. Well said Aaron S

  11. Well here I go again.
    I’m against fees. Got to thinking though, if consessioners took over recreation in the forest and on the plains it seems the argument could be made that it would be more cost effective in the long run. That is if we fired the rangers, thus saving paying them for the rest of their lives. In our deliberations with the BLM over user fees it has become apparent that they could never charge enough to cover the cost of administration let alone enforcement.

  12. The Forest Service is top-heavy with a stiff hierarchy of office bound professional managers who are lucky that the local Fire Management Officer doesn’t suck up ALL of the the district’s budget money.

    Reducing expenditures on fire suppression, controlled burns, lawn mowing, fence painting and all the other things the USFS fire budget wastes money on is one way to funnel money back toward recreation and wilderness protection.

    Another way is to truly change the culture. The USFS is still dominated by backward-looking silverculturists, extractive industry lackeys, and ass-covering careerists–or any combination of the three–who really don’t see any advantage for themselves or the “outfit” by focusing on rec & wild. Start replacing these guys (the vast majority of FS administrators at the regional and DC level are, indeed, guys) with people who understand that major shifts have happened environmentally, economically, and socially since they started the govt career.

    Another change would be to move away from the enforcement culture to the educational and outreach culture.

    In short, we need fewer admins and forest cops and more trail crews, backcountry wilderness guards, and friendly recreation guards. Since all of these folks are underpaid seasonals, they should be made career conditional (like a permanent job, but seasonal) and paid for the professional work they do.

    As for Pete Geddes’s comment: your old and tired dependence on price-theory ignores the reality of whats going on out there. Value does not equal price…you should know that by know.

  13. In 1905 Roosevelt’s boxing buddy, Gifford Pinchot, created the Forest Service to protect vast tracts of Western lands. The agency developed the image as a tough white-hat in a still untamed region. Pinchot promised efficient, responsive and scientific management; the agency still poses as the model of bureaucratic efficiency. But over the next 100 years the Forest Service mutated from a small, idealistic bureau of scientific managers into a growth-addicted agency intent on protecting and perpetuating its own budget and power. Well intentioned and hardworking professionals are caught in a pressure cooker of conflicting values: central planning, changing social values, strict environmental regulations, new ecological science and an increasingly amenity-based Western economy.

    Want “better” managment? Change the incentives managers face.

  14. Great article, Bill. This has been a “sleeper” for quite some time.

    Did you also know that The Blue Ribbon Coalition supports the privatization of our public lands? When they argue for “access”, they mean they want to take the land from the feds and turn it into condos.

  15. I’m not for the additional access fees, but look around and tell me what your user group (insert any user group name) has done to give back to the lands? I’d say that a vast majority 98%(?) of users never do anything to assist in defraying these costs. Trail maintenance days, garbage pickup, etc. are all ways to give back. If you don’t do it, then you have to pay for it with fees.

  16. The_Boneshackler

    @IowaGriz: I assist in defraying these costs. I pay taxes.

    The long-term goal of the Coprorate tools railing against taxes is to ‘starve the beast’, or render our government insolvent. The Corporate Oligarchs may then ‘save’ the public resources by taking ownership of the resources (or privatizing what is profitable and socializing the costs). This is why we have the privatization of schools, roads, prisons, and the military; the very things that should be funded by society as a whole through taxation. The American public is being played, and we are too scared/oblivious/indifferent to do anything about it. Once the Oligarchs have their private mercenary armies fully staffed and trained, there will be no recourse. I doubt that the ‘Celebrating Conservatism’ crowd will stand a chance against hardened Blackwater veterans of the Middle East oil occupations.

  17. Bottom Line: if the Forest Circus didn’t lose so much money on below cost timber sales ( free roads with every lease!) , and could charge reasonable fees for grazing allotments instead of the equivalent of 1950’s AUM pricing, it wouldn’t need to scrape and scam and play shell games with these dubious made-up recreational fees.

    The grazing fee topped out at just under $ 2.00 per AUM, before the Reagan administration permanently rolled it back to a fixed $ 1.35 per AUM , where it is today . What if the Forest Circus was able to get $ 3.0m or more for an AUM , and had all their administrative and road costs for timber sales and those scammish Salvage Sales covered by the winning bidders ? Then we wouldn’t be having this discussion…

  18. Thanks for the kind words, and yes, I probably should’ve put more on “what to do now” in the column.

    Perhaps the best answer, especially for Idaho and Montana residents, is to give some real-time support to Senators Baucus and Crapo and encourage them to move ahead more rapidly with S. 868. That bill would put us back to the pre-FLERA days when we still paid some fees, such as reasonable overnight campground fees and national park entrance fees, but would prevent the FS from charging for parking, picnicking or even driving through National Forests as they now do in many states.

    I believe most people were okay with the pre-2004 situation, except perhaps where the Fee-Demo “experiment” was in place in the Pacific Northwest so let’s go back to it. The FS still gets part of its fee revenue, which leaves less for Congress to replace, and we can get off this slippery slope.

    The second best answer might be to convince one of our 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, from any state, to introduce a companion bill to S. 868.

    Third, support the few green groups currently fighting for you, mainly the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition and Wild Wilderness.

    Fourth, contact your senators and representatives and try to get them to pressure the FS to reverse the trend of contracting public recreation to private companies and at the same time to increase the FS budget to replace any lost fee income.

    And there’s even more to do….

    …If you’re a member of any major green group or outdoor recreation association, work inside to convince group leaders to give some priority to fighting the fee frenzy. They were all there at the frontline when President Bush wanted to sell public lands, so where are they now?

    …If you’re a member of a RV or camping club, talk to your club leaders about opposing the current fee policy, and if the club is a member of a lobbying group like ARC or NFRA, try to get them to break ranks and oppose fees and instead support S. 868.

    …If you see a notice in the local media about the FS proposing fee increases, get involved and oppose them.

    Hope this helps……Bill

  19. Dewey,

    As far as salvage timber sales and grazing allotment leases, I agree, but I don’t agree that it’s a recreation management problem. Even though it was done in the past, I would prefer that money for recreation didn’t come from timber or range. It should be a straight-out normal appropriation. Otherwise, we have to cut more and graze more just to keep the campgrounds open.


  20. Bill— I do agree with you in principle. There should be a financial barrier between recreation and commodity management at the agencies , in a perfect world.

    I only have my lifelong experience with the Shoshone National Forest surrounding Cody to base my comments on. This past winter, they threatened to close most of the campgrounds and severely cut back their recreational services and other ” sidework” because all their budget was being sucked up by pine beetle salvage work. The Shoshone these days is a recreatonist’s forest…it has some grazing allotments, almost no commercial logging ( only slavage) , and no mining. Yet they still wanted to shut down recreational facilities for lack of money. Reality bit down hard , until a token appropriation of $ 40 million to 14 Wyoming and Colorado forests for a beetle eradication fund allowed the Shoshone to keep enough money in their campground budget for the coming biennium.

    But this precisely illustrates what I’m saying. The Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture, not alongside Fish and Wildlife and BLM and Park Service in the Interior Department . Like it or not, the Forest Service being USDA is supposed to be managing the selling of trees and grass like a farm crop as their prime revenue channel for the agency paying its way. But the special interests have lobbied their way into getting prices for those commodities down to ridiculously low levels , to the point where the entire agency can’t sustain itself. It has negative cash flow from commodity ” sales” , but USFS is not about to tell a cattleman or logger they can’t eat grass or cut trees ( let alone imperil their own GS scale job security ), so Recreation takes the hit and fees sprout like mushrooms. In effect , recreation is subsidizing grazing and logging but those multiple uses are abuses towards one another ; imiscible entities. That needs to be flattened.

    I want to add one more point to this fee discussion , but it applies to the National Park Service experience. Living next to Yellowstone Park, we noticed something beginning with the Reagan administration. Maintenance was being deferred and the Park’s facilities and sevices were crumbling. It became apparent that Yellowstone was falling behind , badly , because even though 3 million people paid to enter the Park every year, not enough of that gate money was actually being returned to Yellowstone where the impacts occured and maintenance money was sorely needed. Yellowstone in reality was seeing its gate money go to the federal Geneeral Fund and be appropriated back out to pay for faraway Civil War battlefields or other distant needs but not its own needs So a Republican Wyoming Senator who was not known for being kind to enviros, recreation, nonextractive industries, and ” humanties” — in other words a James Watt natural resource czarist—- had an epiphany. The late Craig Thomas got a bill through Congress allowing for modest increases in Park entrance fees, but crucially so , allowing the Park where those fees were collected to keep up to 80 percent of the fees for their own park needs. This was a godsend to Yellowstone, and much deferred maintenance is now being cleared away, and new visitors center being built with the locally collected revenue. I think the same experience could be told of Zion park and other national park units who were also falling behind the maintenance funding curve even though they were taking in quite a sum at the booths. Revenue was and is being siphoned way from the point source that collects it into the bigger pool of federal budget deficits , financial meltdowns, and wartime economy.

    To my knowledge, neither the BLM nor Forest Service have a similar system of keeping more of their local revenue for their local needs. They collect the money and send it to Washington, and hope they get enough back in next year’s budget to cover their needs.

    Somehow, we need to have our national forests be more forthcoming about their cash flow . It’s far too easy or temptible for them to just jack up other fees to compensate for their primary shortcomings.

  21. Binky Griptight

    Geddes suggests that government employees should have incentive-based compensation? I wonder how well that would work in the military or homeland security – $10 for every person you kill?

    It completely (and perhaps deliberately) obfuscates that some people join the service (including the Forest Service, and National Park Service) because they believe in a life of public service. As in, doing something good for the country, because there is still something great about American and the great outdoors.

  22. Indeed, Inky and Binky, the fellas (and occasional gals) at FREE and PERC toil away with their narrow little brains trying to come up with ways to convince us that wealthy property owners are the only people who can make rational decisions. Thus, these wealthy landowners not only deserve to have public land transferred to their private ownership, but they also get to have more democracy than the rest of us…

  23. Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences

    I agree wholeheartedly that recreation fees should go. However, I am very concerned about how much emphasis is put on repealing the fees and how little emphasis is put on the need to simultaneously restore funding such that the USFS can manage recreation sites. Were the rec fees to be repealed without adequate funding restored, the agency would have to shut down campsites, visitor centers and such. This would create a strong impetus to turn the management of these sites over to private companies. Indeed, I believe that this is the intention of many of the conservatives who are aligned with recreationists to repeal the fees.

    Just a word of warning: there are many ways to privatize public lands and the cunning of profiteers should not be underestimated.

  24. I’ve had some misgivings about concessionaires, but overall, I think they do a good job and it frees up NPS/NFS employees to do more technical stuff. It would be rather dumb to hire a biologist to haul trash. On top of that the money circulates in the economy instead of going to that black hole in DC and more coming out than going in, because they pay taxes.

  25. The problem the general public encounters by letting concessionaires take care of everything is that they then wind up paying even more, because not only do they pay the employees (as they would in taxes to the government) but they’re ALSO making sure the company makes a profit, PLUS they’re paying to cover the concessionaires’ fees to the government. There are too many “middlemen.”