Pay to Play

Public Land Management Benefits from User Fees, But Will Nature Lose Out?

In December of 1997, as he spoke to representatives of the U.S. ski industry, Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck brought up some interesting facts. In recent years, he said, the Forest Service had seen an “explosion of recreation on public lands.” He said there were 560 million recreational visits to national forests in 1980. By 1996, that figure had ballooned to 860 million. “By the year 2000,” he predicted, “it may exceed one billion.”

Those in the audience were delighted by Dombeck's words. Skiers accounted for millions of those visits, and more skiers, of course, meant more money for the ski industry. Dombeck continued: “It baffles me that the Department of Agriculture tracks the value of soybeans, corn or wheat to the penny by the day, yet rarely is recreation and tourism on federal lands understood as a revenue generator. Instead it has been perceived as an amenity—something extra that we are privileged to enjoy. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.”

Protesting new entry fees, demonstrators take to the streets outside the Cascade Lakes Recreation Area in Bend, Oregon. Last June, there were 35 protests like this in 15 states.©  Bruce Jackson, Bend, OR

In fact, the change Dombeck referred to—from a system where federal land-management agencies like the Forest Service relied primarily upon Congressional appropriations for funding to one in which those agencies collected much of their money directly from the people—had been in the works for more than a year. The Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, established in 1996, permitted the Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), and Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to charge the public new admission fees in hundreds of public-land sites around the country. The program was originally intended to run just three years, after which time it would be subjected to a full evaluation. Today, more than four years later, “Fee-Demo” is still functioning, extended, with Congressional approval, until 2002.

“The program has been a great success,” says Lee Larson, a BLM senior outdoor-recreation specialist. “I don't know what we'd do without it.” Larson says that after nearly a decade of budget cuts, the BLM looks at Fee-Demo as a means of survival. “Top-quality recreation sites are not a high priority in Congress,” he says. “This is the only way for us to get the money we need.”

Under Fee-Demo, federal agencies retain all of the new fees. At least 80 percent of each trial site's collected revenues must be reinvested on-site, while up to 20 percent may be redistributed to other sites within the same agency. By keeping funds on-hand, individual land managers can put money where it's needed most. Cash is used to build and maintain facilities, improve and expand campgrounds, construct trails and protect natural resources. According to Larson, the BLM levies fees only at sites with service-oriented facilities, like campgrounds. Primitive backcountry sites, he says, are still free. “Ninety-nine percent of BLM lands are free and open for you to do whatever it is you want to do.”

In 1996, the Forest Service launched the Fee-Demo program with four small projects that generated just $43,000 in revenue. Three years later, in 1999, the four agencies combined collected a total of $176.4 million. Agency surveys show the program, intended to help cash-strapped land managers bring their plots back up to par, has been overwhelmingly praised by recreationists. Not surprisingly, the four agencies are lobbying Congress for permanent fee-program legislation.

But the program has its critics. A recent University of Massachusetts-Amherst study found that low-income residents of New Hampshire and Vermont have cut back on their use of public lands since the Forest Service began charging fees for hikers and other wilderness users in the region. And activist organizations like the American Lands Alliance and the Sierra Club say the program could potentially transform recreation management of the country's lands from a public service to a commercial enterprise. As user-fees supplant taxpayer dollars, they argue, agencies will be forced to operate like businesses. Sites will create more campgrounds, build more roads, and, eventually, may even sell out to the highest bidders—downhill-skiing resorts, for example. Increased air and water pollution and habitat destruction are certain to follow, they say. “There's a financial incentive to develop,” says Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a group he founded expressly for the purpose of fighting recreational user-fees. Silver says agencies will do whatever they can to “improve” their facilities and justify the new fees. “There are lots of recreationists out there who don't need improvements,” notes Silver. A letter sent to the Forest Service last August expressing alarm over Fee-Demo's apparent preferential treatment for the needs of recreational users was signed by many conservationists.

But there are also a lot of people who don't need public lands, argues Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. And for that reason, he says, charging user fees is a more equitable way to recover land-management costs than taxation. “Millions of people use their tax money to pay for the recreational pursuits of others, yet don't use the public lands themselves,” says Stahl. “National forest recreation is not a public good. The benefits are only enjoyed by those who engage in it.” The truth is, says Stahl, the collection of user fees on public lands is nothing new. Fees—most famously those levied at national parks—have long played a major part in public-land management. Fee-Demo, its supporters say, is merely the next logical step.

Activists, for their part, say that if natural landscapes are to maintain their ecological integrity, they must be free from the threat of profit-driven commercialization. The current fee-based system, says Vera Smith, conservation director at the Colorado Mountain Club, is too focused on the needs of people—roads and parking lots for cars, trails for snowmobiles, campsites for RVs. It doesn't leave room for nature. “We don't acknowledge that people are recreating on natural landscapes—places with clear water, beautiful mountains and incredible wildlife,” says Smith. “We won't have those things for long if recreation isn't managed in a sustainable way.”