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For the week of October 15 - 21, 2003

News

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 Midwest.

The legislation quickly gained the attention of Oregon-based activist Scott Silver.

"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 interest legislation."

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 popular trailheads.

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 collected.

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 million.

 

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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.