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June 13, 2005

Forest Recreation Fees: Wars of Ideology and more

In the libertarian blog The Commons, Randal O’Toole comments on recent moves by the Forest Service to whittle down recreation fee areas. Randal seldom misses an opportunity these days to take a jab at “environmentalists” and doesn’t disappoint here. Randal accuses environmentalists of being dumb for not learning to play the fees game to their advantage:

The Forest Service Ends Some Recreation Fees
Randal O'Toole

Environmentalists, elected officials, and the Bush administration just haven't figured out the point behind charging fees for public land recreation. The point is incentives: If the agency is allowed to keep a share of the fees, it will have an incentive to do things that the people paying the fees care about.

For decades, the Forest Service charged fees for timber and kept the fees, but it wasn't allowed to charge or, if it could charge, to keep the fees for recreation, wildlife, or most other resources. So the Forest Service naturally became a timber-dominant agency: what was good for timber was good for its budget and therefore must be a good thing.

Congress made a tentative correction a decade ago when it allowed the Forest Service and other federal agencies to charge recreation fees and keep those fees. But some wilderness advocates and other environmentalists have protested those fees. Even as they complain about "below-cost timber sales," they promote below-cost recreation. They even convinced the Oregon legislature to unanimously pass a resolution asking that the fees be repealed.

The Bush administration responded by issuing rules that the fees could only be charged for improved sites. This will give the Forest Service an incentive to promote developed recreation and a disincentive to promote wildland recreation -- exactly the opposite of what the environmentalists say they want.

The simple reality is that, given a choice between a policy or program that will increase its revenues and one that won't, the Forest Service or any agency will usually choose the one that boosts its budget. The off-road-vehicle people figured this out years ago and they gladly pay recreation fees to get access to the public lands. Why are wilderness advocates so dumb?

Meanwhile, from a warring ideological camp Scott Silver continues his daily anti-fee campaign. Here is Silver’s 06/092005 email:

Pasted below is a USFS News Release issued this morning. It announces that hundreds of recreation sites at which fees were charged, will soon be free to the public once more. That is the good news and I personally look forward to once-again enjoying local public lands which have, for 7 long years, been legally off-limits to me.

Hundreds of day-use sites will be removed from the fee program}

Unfortunately, what this News Release does not say, but what I know to be true, is that the USFS has also pulled out a thin air a new concept they are calling "high impact recreation areas." Using this newly invented and legally groundless concept, the USFS will in September of 2005 begin charging for the broadest imaginable range of recreational products, goods and services in places they deem to be "high impact recreation areas" and for recreational pursuits for which fee-based special use permits will soon be required.

So by all means get out and enjoy your public lands in these next few months. But know that starting in September, if you recreate within a National Forest located within a two-hour drive of a million persons (or in a forest designated as a high-impact recreation area for any of a dozen different reasons), you are going to be hit with fees like you've never seen before.


PS... you can read the USFS's fee guidelines at: www.wildwilderness.org/docs/reaguide.doc
You can read the law enacted by Congress at: www.wildwilderness.org/docs/therat.doc

If you read them both, you will see that the law says nothing about high impact recreation areas and preciously little about special use fees.You'll see that the guidelines tell an entirely different story. If you are in the media, please ASK the USFS about the new and unauthorized recreation fees that are currently being planned. If they won't tell you, then ask me.

Scott Silver
Somewhere in the crossfire are the national forests, the public lands. There are some ways that public lands are indeed public playgrounds and those who use them for such likely ought find means to help support the upkeep of those lands, whether or not by fees. There are some ways that public lands are sanctuaries of the human spirit, and ought to allow us a means to get away from the bombardment of commercialism that is the stuff of our every waking hour. And there are real worries in all aspects of our lives that the public sphere is being increasingly commercialized.

How this is interwoven into the recreation fees debate is stuff we ought to be talking a lot about. But there are distractions in every aspect of our overly complex lives. So the space for public conversation and deliberation is itself too-often reduced to soundbites, email spam, and narrowly-framed blogs. What a world!

Personal disclosure: This too is a narrowly framed blog. Aren't they all?

Posted by Dave on June 13, 2005 at 02:43 PM | Permalink


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