Friday, June 17, 2005

Good riddance to onerous Forest Service fees

Americans who've been rightly offended by irritating and unfair U.S. Forest Service trailhead fees for accessing public facilities already purchased with tax funds can rejoice that they've been ended at some 500 locations around the nation.

In the Sawtooth National Forest, 54 sites that had raised an estimated $700,000 for use in upgrading trailhead facilities were dropped out of the fee program.

Yet, in this hour of celebration over the ending of the fees, critics of Forest Service policies are urging wariness. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, signed in December by President Bush, allows introduction of fees when certain improvements are present at a site.

They must include improved parking, permanent toilet facilities, regular security patrols, a picnic table, trash collection and bulletin-board interpretive information about the area.

The Idaho No-RAT (Recreation Access Tax) Coalition is energizing itself to be a trip-wire alarm in the event new fees are introduced.

One can oppose the fee system and yet still find sympathy for the Forest Service, which is caught between the harsh realities of conflicting pressures.

On the one hand, the Forest Service finds public facilities deteriorating far below the standards the public expects of its national treasures.

On the other is the skinflint Congress, with its pork-barrel politics and a creeping hostility toward anything that preserves the environment.

Enter the fee program in 1997, which ignited a storm of national protests. It was never enforced with an even hand—some obedient citizens paid the fees, while others did not—and confounded logic in charging people to merely set foot on public ground.

And there was always the question: Why was Congress's responsibility to care for lands acquired for public benefit being abandoned and foisted on taxpayers?

Therein lies the public dilemma at this point. If Congress won't provide proper funds for upkeep of Forest Service facilities and fees have been withdrawn, what happens to public amenities?

The Forest Service will need to depend increasingly on the goodwill, and just plain sweat power of civic-minded volunteers and organizations to help maintain or improve facilities.

Idaho is blessed with such individuals and organizations that have demonstrated an eagerness to step in to fill voids created by government neglect and indifference.

The end of fees at trailheads without services is a good first step toward a return to fairness. The next step? Adequate federal funding for public lands agencies to ensure access for all Americans.

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