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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 17 - 23, 2002

Opinion Columns

Fee demo program 
has fallen short

Guest opinion by Sen. LARRY CRAIG

The grades are in, and the recreation fee demonstration project has flunked in Idaho. I will oppose the continuation of the pilot project as it has been implemented over the last few years, including the proposed Hells Canyon recreation fee.

However, opposing the recreation fees leaves us with challenges in addressing increased use and impact by those wishing to spend time on our rivers and public lands.

It’s worth recalling that the pilot program proposed by the Forest Service had good intentions. It was supposed to make up for budget shortfalls that the natural resource agencies perceived they were experiencing.

In spite of Congress increasing funds for recreation on Forest Service lands over the last decade, there has been a decrease in the amount of money actually getting to the ground. Some of that money has been diverted to other programs such as the failed and costly Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project.

Additionally, during bad fire seasons like the one we are having this year, the Forest Service is forced to use project funding to pay for the cost of fire fighting, then get reimbursed by Congress in an emergency bill early in the next fiscal year. The net effect of this process is that funding for many of the agency’s field operations, including some recreation spending, is held back or borrowed to pay for fire fighting. This uncertainty further hinders the delivery of recreation service.

When the demonstration program was first introduced on Forest Service lands, there were several conditions: First, we wanted to keep money collected at the local level to make improvements on the ground in that recreation area.

Second, there had to be collaboration with those most affected by the fees—the recreation users and the local communities adjacent to that forest.

And third, whatever fee program proposed had to be fair to all users.

While some recreation fees have become commonplace and successful, such as fees for campgrounds or fishing and hunting licenses, the recently implemented and proposed fees on public lands and for river use have failed. These new fees are also meeting substantial resistance from recreation users.

We have seen the Forest Service aggressively grow the user fees beyond the original intent of the program. In some instances the Forest Service has taken a "field of dreams" approach: if they build it, the public will pay? The original pilot program authorized a limited number of projects, but one region chose to collect trail head fees on more than 1,000 different trails in two different states as a single project. Administrative expansions like this have only undermined the public’s trust in this program and provided reason for change.

Absent the pilot program, we are left with three challenges: First, we need to properly fund recreation activities on public lands, and make sure recreation dollars are going to recreation.

Second, we need to streamline the litigation process for appeals on public lands. I have introduced legislation to do just that. We can no longer afford to manage public lands in the courtroom, whether for recreation or fire management. Those decisions must be placed in the hands of Forest Service and other land management professionals in collaboration with the local communities most affected by those decisions.

Finally, there are areas on our National Forests that receive so much recreational use we are literally loving them to death. After the adoption of the Roadless policy, recreational use has been concentrated into fewer and smaller areas. We must find ways to help the agencies control this over-use and find ways to disperse this use to less heavily used areas.

I will be working on these challenges and invite concerned communities and individuals to share innovative ideas for improving the stewardship of Idaho’s public lands.


U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican, is Idaho’s senior senator.


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