New law proposes permanent user fees
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
In the latest chapter of the ongoing legislative fray over public lands user
fees, a bill was introduced last week that would make fees like the Sawtooth
National Forestís trailhead parking fee permanent.
User fees collected at trailheads
like Adamís Gulch in Ketchum could become permanent if legislation introduced in
Congress last week becomes law.
Express file photo
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act was introduced on Wednesday,
Oct. 8, in the House committees on agriculture and resources by Rep. Ralph
Regula, R-Ohio. The bill has five East Coast cosponsors, along with one from the
The legislation quickly gained the attention of Oregon-based activist Scott
"Itís a horrible bill," said Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness
and a vehement opponent to user fees. "There is no one on the planet who can say
this is not the work of the recreation industry trying to pass their special
If made law, the bill would establish "basic," "expanded," and "special
recreation permit" fees. Basic fees would cover general use of public lands,
while expanded fees would cover additional services. Special recreation permit
fees would cover group activities, hunting and guiding and motorized use.
The bill would also give the program more enforcement teeth by labeling
failure to pay as a class B misdemeanor, punishable with a maximum $5,000 fine
and 6 months in jail. As it is, the fee demonstration program classifies failure
to pay as an infraction.
It would make public lands user fees permanent for five federal agencies,
with the addition of the Bureau of Reclamation to the agencies already covered
by the trial program.
It would permit the issuance of an America the Beautiful pass, which "will be
accepted by one or more Federal land management agencies or by one or more
governmental or non-governmental entities." It would also repeal the federal
Golden Age, Golden Access and Golden Eagle passes, which grant seniors lifetime
access to national parks at discounted rates.
Itís been eight years since Congress approved the federal Fee Demonstration
Program as a rider on an appropriations bill. Originally, the test period was
slated for three years but was extended several times by Congress.
At the time of their implementation, user fees were wildly unpopular on the
Sawtooth National Forest, where general access fees were charged. But in 1999,
the Sawtooth overhauled its program and began charging fees at 38 of its most
Since 1997, the first year the forest implemented fees, $520,000 in fees have
been collected, said Sawtooth National Forest spokesman Ed Waldapfel. Of the
revenues collected, up to 15 percent can be used for administrative costs, and
85 percent go directly back to projects on the forest, he said.
As part of Congressí debate on the issue, the General Accounting Office
published a report in April 2003 that examined the Forest Serviceís management
of the program.
The study concluded that the Forest Service was meeting the programís stated
goals of returning 80 percent of the fees to regions where they were originally
The report did find weaknesses, however.
The report estimated that an additional $10 million of appropriated funds had
to be used to enforce and manage the fee demo program, putting the total cost of
generating the $35 million in annual fees collected at a little more than $16