A new law authorizing fees for recreation on public lands has some folks wondering where cash-strapped public land managers will stop.
Sandpoint resident Ken Fischman says he fears it won’t be long before visitors to Roman Nose Lake in the Selkirk Mountains will have to pay a fee.
“It has trails, toilets, signs, a kiosk,” he said. “I would think this would be a prime target.”
But local Forest Service officials say they have no plans to expand their recreation-fee sites under the new law, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which was passed in November as a rider to the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill.
The act replaced the temporary Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, a pilot project that authorized public land managers to charge fees for use of public recreation sites.
Local land managers liked the program because the fees went directly back into maintaining and improving the site where the fees had been collected. When fees were charged before, the money went to the federal treasury.
Even though North Idaho has had few sites where the demo fees were charged, a grass-roots group has formed to try to get the latest legislation repealed.
The Idaho No-RAT (Recreation Access Tax) Coalition, which includes backcountry horsemen and environmentalists, is circulating a petition calling for the law’s repeal and trying to convince state legislators to pass a resolution opposing the act.
Critics are worried that as recreation budgets get squeezed for Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, managers will be tempted to charge recreation fees to cover their costs.
Instead, critics say, public lands and basic recreation amenities – such as pit toilets and picnic tables – should be adequately funded by Congress, not users.
“They’re creating incentives for public land managers to charge fees,” said Fischman, a member of the coalition. “These fees discriminate against low-income workers and families.”
Under the previous Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service charged for parking and access within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in central Idaho.
North Idaho did not implement any “pay to play” fees, however, said Dave O’Brien, Panhandle National Forests spokesman.
“In North Idaho, people spoke very clearly they did not want to pay to play unless they were getting a service,” he said. “Our forest is so spread out with different access points, we thought it would cost us more to implement than we would get in revenue.”
North Idaho sites are primarily heavily used campgrounds, such as the Shadowy St. Joe Campground in the St. Joe Ranger District, or cabin and look- out rentals.
In Eastern Washington, the Bead Lake boat launch and several campgrounds are part of the recreation fee program. Most of the sites were fee sites before the fee demonstration program even existed, said Jann Bodie of the Colville National Forest.
The Panhandle and Colville forest officials have no plans to add more fee sites, Bodie and O’Brien said.
In fact, U.S. Forest Service headquarters issued a press release last week announcing that hundreds of day-use sites were being removed from the program because they do not meet the criteria under the new law.
In Washington and Oregon, for instance, the number of day-use sites now charging fees will be cut by 25 percent.
The day-use sites in Idaho’s Sawtooth Recreation Area also will stop charging fees, said Mike Tracy, spokesman for Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.
Craig, who chairs the Senate Public Lands Subcommittee, opposed inclusion of the law in the appropriations act. He now supports the recreation-fee law, saying it’s not as burdensome as feared.
“Larry continues to be opposed to broad-based recreation fees that are not targeted to specific activities or amenities or services in an area,” Tracy said.
The law specifically prohibits entrance fees and fees solely for parking or picnicking along roads or trail.
Despite the new restrictions, critics are wary.
The Forest Service issued guidelines for implementing the new law in April, which Robert Funkhouser, national director of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, described as “horrendous.”
“Although permanent facilities are required (for charging fees), they’ve deemed that Porta-potties are considered toilet facilities,” he said. “The legislation itself is vague and contradictory and the guidelines are overaggressive in implementation.”
Funkhouser and others are worried that the trend toward underfunding of recreation facilities on public lands will lead to a bending of the rules toward general user fees.
But Bodie, assistant recreation staffer for the Colville National Forest, said the agency is making sure that the amenities offered justify the fee. And as budgets get tighter, the agency is not likely to add amenities just so it can charge a fee, she said.
“We are facing the situation where we have to evaluate how we can maintain our facilities to provide a safe and healthy site for people to recreate within our budget,” she said. “If we can’t, we may have to reduce amenities.”
Recreation budgets aren’t being slashed, according to Forest Service officials, but they aren’t keeping up with the needs, either.
O’Brien said the Panhandle National Forests had about $2 million to spend on recreation – trails, campgrounds, boat launches and everything else related to recreation – 15 years ago.
This year, the forest’s budget is still about $2 million, but the payroll, costs to maintain facilities and recreation demands have all increased, he said. That means picnic tables and other perks at some sites, like the Coeur d’Alene Mountain scenic overlook near Beauty Bay, disappear.
“We couldn’t maintain it,” O’Brien said. “You still can go there, but we don’t offer any amenities.”
And while the Forest Service used to maintain trails with its own crews, it now relies heavily on user groups to maintain trails through volunteer labor.
According to a recent Associated Press report, the Bush administration has directed all national forests to rate their recreation sites by 2007, and the lowest ranking sites may be scaled back or closed.
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