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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 11 - July 17, 2001


Sawtooth user fees 
net $300,000

Four- year total half of `97 budget cut

1997 and 1998 collections:

  • SNRA lands display, $3,000.

  • Goat interpretive projects, $4,000.

  • Sandy Beach toilet, $8,000.

  • Pettit Lake toilet, $7,900.

1999 and 2000 collections:

  • Holman Creek Campground, $213.

  • Collections/compliance, $10,000.

  • Trail maintenance, $15,000.

  • Trail/trailhead weeds, $1,500.

  • Trailhead maintenance, $10,000.

  • Alpine Creek ford, trail and trailhead, $23,900.

Express Staff Writer

A congressional experiment to measure the American public’s acceptance of paying to play on public lands may continue to fund a massive backlog of federal lands maintenance projects—as well as continue to anger some people.

The controversial "recreation fee demonstration program" is now in its fifth year and set to expire in 2002. But under a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month and headed to the Senate, the program would continue another four years.

Congress will debate a series of proposals this month, ranging from extending the demo program to making it permanent. One bill would eliminate it.

Meanwhile, a larger debate on the question of employing user-generated fees to replace taxpayer-funded programs continues. Some view the program as a supplement, and others as a replacement, to federal appropriations.

Locally, the Sawtooth National Forest continues to amass funds for local recreation projects, but the public’s compliance with the program remains marginal.

Last year, the program, which charges hikers and bikers a $15 annual fee or a $5 three-day fee to use area trailheads, netted $58,700 on the forest’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Ketchum Ranger District.

In 1999, the program netted $89,300 on the two forests.

Compliance during those two years was similar, at about 59 percent each year.

Compliance is measured when Forest Service officials patrol trailheads. Those who are ticketed but then purchase a pass are not considered to be in compliance.

The shrinking amount of money brought in, along with identical compliance figures doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are using fee trailheads, SNRA recreation manager Lisa Stoeffler said.

"I can’t explain (the slipping collection numbers), to be perfectly honest," she said. "It’s really not all that great a sample size."

Based on trailheads where compliance is good, Stoeffler speculated that local Idahoans are not purchasing passes as readily as visitors are. Compliance is good in places like Redfish Lake-area trailheads, while William’s Creek and Alturas Lake trailheads are seeing less.

Since 1997, the Sawtooth National Forest has collected $310,800, which has been spent on an array of recreation-related projects, including campground and trailhead improvements and installation of trailhead toilets.

The money collected through fees does not replace appropriated money, said Bill LeVere, Sawtooth National Forest supervisor.

The $300,000 collected under the program in four years is about a third of the SNRA’s and Ketchum District’s annual recreation budgets.

Each year for the past three, the SNRA and Ketchum District were allocated just over $1 million in recreation funding, most of which has gone to the SNRA. They’re numbers that have slipped slightly from the early-1990s, when the SNRA alone was allocated close to $2 million for recreation.

Long-term trends related to fee demo and appropriated moneys are not easily tabulated because the program is relatively new, but it is clear that the SNRA’s recreation budget shrank between 1996 and 1997—the year the Sawtooth began charging user fees—by half a million dollars. Though it’s fluctuated considerably, the SNRA’s recreation budget hasn’t been over $1 million since.

Congress initiated pay-to-play in 1996 when it approved fee demo in a spending bill rider. During the first two years on the Sawtooth, the Forest Service charged a general access fee for anyone stepping foot on federal lands included in the program.

The program during those two years incited considerable controversy, and in 1998 the Sawtooth’s management responded by changing the program to a fee for parking at trailheads.

The program, originally slated for four years "to demonstrate the feasibility of user-generated cost recovery for the operation and maintenance of recreation areas or sites," was extended already and could be extended again.

Opponents contend the fees amount to double taxation. American taxpayers should not have to pay more to walk in aspen groves or bike abandoned mining roads while they already foot the bill for upkeep of federal natural resources.

"It’s a tax, particularly on Westerners who live near the public lands, without any legislation, any deliberation or a public hearing," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "It’s just not equitable. It’s just not fair."

DeFazio and other lawmakers have sponsored bills to repeal pay-to-play but have never received a hearing.

One reason is that the original sponsor of the fee provision in 1996 was Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, former chair of the House public lands subcommittee and now of the entire House Resources Committee. Hansen has not allowed any fee-removal bill to have a hearing, and none has gone through the Senate.

Local opposition is still prevalent. Some hikers say they’ve become alienated from using their favorite hiking spots.

"I feel uneasy when I think about where I’m going to park," Ketchum artist Will Caldwell said of his local hiking forays. "It’s not that I couldn’t afford it, but my politics make me feel like I don’t want to cast a vote in favor of it. I tend to go to other places."

Others continue to support the program, saying $15 is a small price to pay to help keep natural resources in good condition.

"If we were paying this $15 and couldn’t see where any had been spent on this forest, I’d be pissed, too," said Bob Rosso, owner of the Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum. "It’s kind of a neat thing, and it appears to be improving the overall quality and access to trails in the national forests."

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.