For the week of June 30, 1999  thru July 6, 1999  

New anti-user fee legislation introduced


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Opposition to the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program is growing among Southern California congressional representatives.

Congresswoman Lois Capps, D-Calif., introduced new legislation June 22 to terminate the U.S. Forest Service’s participation in the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.

Capps’ bill, called the Forest Access Immediate Relief Act of 1999, joined another anti-user-fee bill introduced in Congress earlier this spring by Rep Mary Bono, R-Calif.

Capps’ newly introduced bill differs from Bono’s by offsetting the revenues lost by termination of the user-fees. It would do so through prohibiting the use of appropriated funds for engineering road construction for timber cuts from national forests.

Bono’s bill, introduced in March, would simply put an end to the user-fee program. Bono’s bill is called the Forest Tax Relief Act.

Capps’ press assistant, Lisa Finkel, said Congress needs to continue supporting the national forests, but "recreation should not be subsidized on the backs of ordinary taxpayers. The congresswoman views fee demo as double taxation."

Both Capps and Bono represent Southern California where public sentiment against user fees in the Los Padres and San Bernadino national forests prompted introduction of their bills.

The Southern California forests and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area are among 10 other sites nationally that Forest Service officials consider problematic test areas. There are 67 forest fee-demonstration sites nationwide.

The user-fee program was implemented by the Forest Service as part of the 1996 Interior Appropriations Act. Sawtooth National Forest officials recently altered their fee-demo program to require vehicle passes at trailheads instead of individual access passes.

The engineering funds whose use would be prohibited by Capps’ bill total $37.4 million for fiscal year 1999, according to a Department of Agriculture overview of the 1999 budget. The department reported that the Forest Service collected $20.8 million through the fee demo program in fiscal year 1998.

According to the department, engineering support for timber sales includes that needed for building and maintaining roads as well as minimizing environmental impacts of existing roads.

Capps chose engineering support for timber, Finkel said, because "it’s outrageous that timber companies get subsidies when taxpayers have to pay the additional burden to recreate."

The Department of Agriculture’s overview states: "This support is critical to ensure the presence of safer, more efficient roads that meet the Forest Plan standards and guidelines while at the same time minimizing adverse environmental impacts."

Sawtooth National Forest supervisor Bill LeVere said he worries about legislation like Capps’ because money budgeted to support recreation in one year may be re-appropriated in another. User fees, if adopted on a permanent basis, will generate funds for national forest recreation over the long term, without potential for being re-channeled to fund anything else , he said.

LeVere said services and projects such as trail maintenance and the new bathroom facilities at Oregon and Adam’s gulches would be dropped if fee demo were terminated and general appropriations continue to fall through.

He acknowledged that user fees are comparable to a new tax, but pointed out that they also differ from taxes in that those who pay user fees realize the benefits directly.

Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a recreation advocacy group in Bend, Ore., said, "the Forest Service shows no inclination to listen to the growing public opposition to forest fees. Unless enough public protest reaches congress directly, it is likely that forest fees will soon become permanent."

Silver is currently forming a national forest fee protest day, to be held on August 14. So far, over 50 groups and individuals nationwide are organizing various forms of fee protests.

 

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