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Friday ó February 13, 2004

News

Senate panel votes to trim user fee demo


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

In what activists are calling a "remarkable victory," opponents of the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program celebrated Wednesday what they believe is the beginning of the end of recreation fees on national forests and other public lands.

The Senate Energy and Resources Committee advanced legislation Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., to permanently authorize the collection of entrance fees at national parks and allow those fees to be retained and spent where they are collected.

Entrance fees have long been charged at national parks, but without the authority of the fee-demonstration program, those fees could not be used where they had been collected.

The passage of the bill, called The Recreation Fee Authority Act, would also allow recreation fees charged since 1996 by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lapse when the current fee demo authorization ends on Dec. 31, 2005.

Fee opponents this week flooded senate offices with faxes and phone calls, expressing their general support for national park fees and their adamant opposition to fees for recreation on lands managed by the Forest Service and BLM, said Scott Silver, executive director of an anti-fee group called Wild Wilderness.

Fee-opponents said they recognized the fundamental differences between the national parks and other public lands. They said that while entrance fees were acceptable for the parks, such fees were anathema when charged for a walk in the woods or forms of undeveloped recreation.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton had lobbied senators in an effort to include permanent fee authority in the bill for five federal agencies.

"For a totally grassroots effort to prevail over the Secretary of Interior is an accomplishment of incredible proportion," Silver said. "We went toe-to-toe with some powerful players, and this time the people won."

Just last week, the Department of Interior announced that it had administratively authorized provisions for the BLM to enforce fee demo. The changes included $5,000 fines for non-compliance. The maximum penalty has thus far been a $100 fine.

By making these changes through an administrative process, the Interior Department bypassed Congress, which stated that Fee Demo shall be implemented "without promulgating regulations," pointed out Alasdair Coyne, director of Keep Sespe Wild and another fee opponent.

Coyne said passage of the Thomas bill in committee this week means the tide is turning.

"The tide has turned and with a growing groundswell for ending this ill-conceived recreation fee program it is becoming ever more clear that we will soon see the end of fees to take a hike in the woods," he said.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Sawtooth National Forestís Ketchum Ranger District have been charging fees under the program since the enabling legislation was passed in 1997.

Following a tumultuous response from local residents to the forestís initial general access forest passes, the local fee program was changed and oriented toward trailheads. Cars parked at selected trailheads throughout the Ketchum District and SNRA are required to display a trailhead parking pass, which costs $15 for a season or $5 for three days.

Fees collected at local trailheads have gone to help fund a number of varying projects, including trailhead expansions, toilet installations and trail maintenance.


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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.





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