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Friday — April 23, 2004

Our View

For forest fee critics,
a small victory

Professionals who manage America’s federal public lands are unwittingly caught between two pressures--criticism from the public on one side, Washington politicians who’ve mismanaged the budget on the other.

Happily, however, public criticism apparently is having a gradual effect.

The Forest Service is abandoning the fee charged for trail users at 21 trailheads in the 1.9 million acre Sawtooth National Forest, which includes the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Ketchum Ranger District.

But the fee, $5 for three days, or $15 per year, will remain in force at 17 other Sawtooth trailheads where improved parking and sanitation facilities have been constructed with the fees.

It is also bringing a measure of common sense to fee collection with the installation of fee tubes called "iron rangers" at trailheads that receive heavy use. The iron rangers will remove part of the problem for unsuspecting visitors who have been faced with a dilemma once they arrived at a trailhead. There, they were forced to choose between risking a citation or taking an hour or more to drive to a distant Forest Service office to pay the fee. Of course, coughing up cash or checks could still be a problem.

However improved the fees may be, deliberate unfairness still persists in the so-called Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. Western states, where most of the nation’s largest and most spectacular public lands are located, bear an excessive burden in the program while public attractions in Washington D.C., for example, remain open without fees.

But even that isn’t the point: There should be no fee. In acquiring public lands since the country’s founding, Congress morally and contractually obligated itself to properly preserve and maintain public property, and to guarantee public access at no cost to lands bought with public funds.

These majestic properties are jewels in the United States crown, but apparently not to irresponsible members of Congress.

The Forest Service has steadily been starved of proper funds by lawmakers who either simply loathe the agency for petty reasons, want to destroy it for ideological reasons, or who want Forest Service funds diverted to their pet projects.

To their everlasting credit, steadfast critics of the fee have been unrelenting in their pressure and can now claim a small victory in a much larger battle.

If they persist and turn up the heat on men and women in Congress who control the budgets for the Forest Service, odds are excellent the same pressure that has scaled back the fee will eventually eliminate the fee everywhere.


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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.