The West's key public land user fee activists issued a collective groan last week when Congress passed its omnibus appropriations bill complete with legislation that extends public land recreation fees for another decade.
The Recreational Fee Demonstration Program was instituted in 1996 as a tool to generate revenue to manage recreation on public land. The program has been both praised and assailed by federal land users. Since its inception, land managers have been able to reinvest fees into the forests where they were paid.
The original program, as with the new legislation, was passed as a rider on an appropriations bill.
"That's how it was born, and that's how it comes of age," said Will Caldwell, a Ketchum resident and president of the Idaho Sporting Congress' board of directors. "It's a sleazy way for Congress to do their business, but that's the nature of the beast."
The bill's sponsor, Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, attached it as a rider during this month's "lame duck" session of Congress. Regula was the architect of the original fee demonstration program.
Omnibus bills are considered "must pass" legislation because of the potential for a government shutdown.
The fee demonstration program was instituted on the Sawtooth National Forest immediately following the program's inception. The general access passes that were introduced that first year, however, were extremely unpopular.
The forest subsequently instituted a trailhead-parking fee, which requires anyone parking at a designated trailhead to pay $15 for an annual pass or $3 for a day.
During the course of the demonstration program's eight years, public opinion locally seemed to vary from person to person. Some viewed it as double taxation and a means by which Congress could begin cutting the budgets of federal land management agencies.
Proponents said a few bucks is hardly a steep price to pay for the abundance of recreational opportunities public lands afford in the Wood River Valley. They said Congress is under-funding public land agencies anyway.
Caldwell is one of the local fee opponents. Reiterating a message circulated by other fee opponents, he said fee demo is only the first step of a long-term plan to commercialize the management of the nation's public lands.
"Now we need to shift gears and turn our attention to resisting any further involvement of the commercialization in the national forests," Caldwell said. "This represents sort of a cementing of the transformation of the Forest Service from a logging agency into an agency that will manage for recreation."
Caldwell said he can't see where fee collections will go. In the last eight years, the Sawtooth National Forest has rebuilt several trailheads, installed new toilets and funded trail work with the user fee collections.
"They've kind of created a cash cow for themselves," he said.
Regula's bill, HR 3283, allows the federal land management agencies to charge access fees for recreational use of public lands by the general public. The bill passed the House Committee on Resources in September.
According to anti-fee activists, Regula's bill represents a radical change in the way public lands are funded. They pointed out that it stands in contrast to a more moderate, competing bill passed by the Senate earlier this year.
There, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-WY, sponsored S.1107, which would let the National Park Service retain their entrance fees for local use but would allow access fees to expire in other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Thomas' bill passed the Senate in May by unanimous consent but never had a hearing in the House.
In a press release from the House Resources Committee, Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., puts it this way:
"This legislation ensures continued access to recreational opportunities on our federal land while protecting the public's pocketbook. We have given federal land managers the ability to assess reasonable fees for specific activities and uses. This bill will put an end to fears that fees will be misused by federal land managers since we have laid out very specific circumstances under which these fees can be collected and subsequently reinvested."
Fee opponent Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, put it this way:
"This was a victory of pork over principle. Ralph Regula is responsible for the first tax increase of the Bush administration. He and Senator (Ted) Stevens (of Alaska) have sold out America's heritage of public lands for the price of a road."
"This is an abuse of position by Congressman Regula," Funkhouser said. "Changing public land policy in the middle of the night via a rider is despicable. Once again the Congressman has proven to be hostile to rural and Western values and will stop at nothing to push his agenda."