December 31, 2007

Recreation fees source of contention

PARKS: The U.S. Forest Service disputes criticism that the charges amount to double taxation.

The Press-Enterprise

Recreation fees charged to national forest users bring in millions of dollars every year to pay for maintenance and visitors services, among other things.

Critics contend the fees amount to double taxation and keep people on fixed incomes from visiting forests and parks.

The debate over fees continues as local U.S. Forest Service districts finalize plans for changes over the next five years that include campground closures and higher overnight fees.

The Forest Service says the fees shift some of the cost of benefits and services to those who directly use them, and are less than what most people would pay for a day's or evening's entertainment elsewhere.

In 2005, national recreation fee revenues totaled $228 million. Of that, the Forest Service took in $50.2 million. The National Park Service brought in the biggest share. The Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior also collect fees.

Inland-area Forest Service rangers said revenue from the $5-a-day Adventure Pass has helped them with projects the agency wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. The San Bernardino National Forest collected $624,522 in 2006; the Cleveland National Forest, $220,167. The forests keep 60 percent to 80 percent of that money; the rest is distributed by headquarters based on each region's fee receipts, visitation and maintenance needs.

Projects funded by the fees must be "connected to the visitor experience," including habitat restoration, forest law enforcement and the cost of collecting the fees.

In 2006, the fees paid for graffiti removal, maintenance on more than 200 miles of trails, purchase of 15 new fire grills for campsites, and repair of water systems at Lake Hemet Picnic Area and Boulder Basin, off Highway 243 north of Idyllwild.

But opponents object to the pay-to-play philosophy.

Kitty Benzar, of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a national anti-fee group based in Durango, Colo., worries that Congress will appropriate less money to local agencies that do well at generating fees.

Earlier this month, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Montana, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced Senate Bill 2438 to limit such fees.

The legislation would repeal the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act, which gave agencies the authority to charge and collect fees at federal recreation sites through 2014. The bill calls for reinstating the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, which limited the use of fees on public lands. It would also cap the entrance fees at national parks.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, sponsored similar legislation in 2001 and 1998, said her spokeswoman, Jennifer May.

"Recognizing the funding needs of land management agencies, particularly after recent wildfires, Congresswoman Bono will continue to fight to ensure that such agencies as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have the resources they need, but these funds should not be secured by placing an unfair burden on families seeking to enjoy the outdoors," May said.