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June 16, 2008


Congressional "Pay to Play" Oversight Hearing
Dave

On Wednesday (10 AM EDT) the House Resource Committee's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands in concert with the Subcommittee on Water and Power is having an oversight hearing titled "Pay to Play: Implemention of Fee Authority on Federal Lands". Here is a link to the Committee's website where you can click on the Calander for hearing info. Or go directly to the hearing info.

Here is what I offered up as testimony, pleading that Congress find means to eliminate general access fees to our National Forests:

TESTIMONY OF DAVE IVERSON BEFORE JOINT SUBCOMMITTEES: NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS and WATER AND POWER, COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES, JUNE 18, 2008

Chairman Grijalva, Chairwoman Napolitano and distinguished members of the subcommittees:

Thank you for the privilege to comment on the important matter of recreation access fees. My name is Dave Iverson. I recently retired from the US Forest Service after nearly 30 years work in planning, operations research, economics and social sciences. I served my entire career in the Intermountain Region. I am a founding board member for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE.org), a non-profit based in Oregon. I have served as FSEEE's board president for the last 15 years.

I have spent a lifetime wandering around the national forests, national wildlife refuges, and BLM lands in Utah and surrounding Western states. Early experiences in the mountains and brushlands greatly influenced my choices to work as a conservationist and environmentalist. When growing up our family traditions were Nature-centered, with vacations and family reunions all staged in our national forests. For working class Americans, free access to our national forests played an important role in helping us develop as American citizens and members of the community of life on Earth.

In both my government and nonprofit roles, I have watched and participated in the "recreation fees" debate for many years. I see no problem with special use fees for campgrounds, picnic areas, and boat launch sites, in part because these are long standing traditions and use fees are low. I see no problem with entrance fee collection for some of our outstanding National Parks to help welcome and orient visitors, fund interpretation and upkeep of needed trails, bridges, roads, to fund law enforcement activities, and more.

But I am steadfastly against general access recreation fees as have recently surfaced in our national forests. Here is why: First, as owners of the national forests, people ought not to be charged to access their land.

Second, in our culture we are bombarded throughout their lives with markets and marketing. We have commercialized almost everything. People desperately need space for reflection and re-creation far apart from the maddening drone that symbolizes over-commercialization of everything. Public lands provide a perfect backdrop to provide such far-from-commercial-culture experience. For many years they provided this backdrop. Unfortunately, and particularly in the National Forests, public land managers are busily, even gleefully turning the national forests into theme park amusements. This is tragic.

Third, fees that are kept within bureaucracies distort incentives and distract public servants from important conservation and preservation concerns. There continues to be far too much focus on marketing and outright money-grubbing among US Forest Service managers and staff these days. This too is tragic.

Providing citizens free access to their lands has other spin-off benefits. If we can find means to encourage citizens to seek "back to Nature" experiences we might find a useful counterbalance to the ever-more-individual, ever-more-frenzied, pace of our gadget filled TV/computer culture that is driving our citizens, our young people in particular, away from both community and Nature.

It appears to me that at minimum the cumbersome nature of fee collection – likely the whole idea of fees – drives many away from our national forests at a time when we are seeing fewer and fewer children taking interest in Nature apart from TV feeds.

Providing free access to public lands is an idea whose time has come once again. The amount spent on such is a pittance in relation to defense, health care, education, welfare and just about any other government program. It can't possibly be a serious consideration when weighed against the benefits of helping citizens connect, once again, with the magnificent public places of the national forests, parks, and other public lands.

Please find means to rid the American people of the plague of generalized recreation access fees.

{Update 4/18: Hearing in Process}

As I watch/listen to the oversight hearing, I am impressed with what appears to be some progress on the "fee" front. In particular, I see that at least in theory general access recreation fees are disallowed. This is progress, to the extent that it is true. But it may not be true in practice--members of the second panel disagree with Administration spokespersons from the first panel in this point.

Additionally, there has been some progress on the cumbersome nature of fee collection. Maybe a general, annual federal pass may be the ultimate answer, with appropriate due consideration given to those lacking means to pay, and with due consideration to, e.g. foreign visitors, school children, etc. But that "resolution" in essence would be to charge for access to all public lands. If that is to be the case -- not my desire -- then at the very least we could get rid of the many, maddening signs (and backup enforcement officials) that now exist.

Note that as long as fees are kept at sites collected, perverse incentives continue to exist as federal managers will and do tend to over-emphasize developed over dispersed recreation, and will tend to over-develop popular sites. However, I do agree with USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey that hardening some over-loved sites is indeed necessary and fees do help defray some of these costs.

Posted by Dave on June 16, 2008 at 01:20 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Posted by: james edmonds

It'll cost us a nickel to collect each dime, so I suppose we'll have to extract that largess at point of use as well.

james edmonds | Jun 16, 2008 9:56:10 PM


Posted by: Mike Dechter

Dave,

As one who helps manage recreation at the bottom of the pyramid your testimony seems off-base and a bit paranoid. I don't really understand where you're coming from at all.

I haven't seen any marketing campaigns by commercial interests in the US Forest Service. I also haven't seen any amusement park-like developments either. I think you do yourself a disservice by exaggerating to an unrealistic degree.

There is also no evidence that fee collection at the levels and locations occuring in the FS "drives many away from our National Forests." Sure, this is a common argument against fee collection, but there is yet to be any evidence of people not using one or more National Forest where a fee has been put in place for a campsite, HIRA, parking area or other facility.

Additionally, you discuss fee collection as a runaway train operated by a 'money-grubbing' FS manager. In reality, fees are closely regulated by boards of mostly non-FS members. The Forest Service can only propose fee increases and it often takes years to see these through.

I'm not one who has been involved all that much, and truly I don't care enough too. I write this, however, because I'm truly shocked by your testimony.

Where I worked as a rec staff we had about enough money so that I was regularly cleaning out trash at the campsites as a GS-11 because we couldn't afford to hire seasonals. I often had to work for free simply because there wasn't any money to pay for overtime or another person through recreation funds. We had (and still have) one enforcement officer for about 1 million acres. From my observations, the greatest damage to our nation's natural resources are a result of unmanaged and uncontrolled recreation because of ongoing lack of resources.

If recreation fees go, do you really believe Congress will suddenly become more generous? Look at the economy, look at FS rec appropriation trends, look at Congressional behavior toward other resources... I just think we'll be a whole lot worse off and so will our natural resources.

Mike Dechter | Jun 18, 2008 1:44:49 PM


Posted by: Dave Iverson

Mike,

From my vantage point, the "marketization" of the Forest Service is subtle, but sinister. It is found in the common references to "business practices". It is found in the attentiveness to budgets, targets, etc. Although not publicly spoken, it is found in the attentiveness to the pleadings of business "partners" -- often prompted by a phone call from a local Congressman -- as if business interests could or ought to be partners to government. It is found in all the ways the Forest Service tries to make itself into a government business entity.

As per lack of FS appropriations, those who spoke in the second panel correctly noted that the "starving" of Forest Service budgets is real. It is also by design of the neoCons from the Bush Administration. Lack of budgets is better dealt with by Congress and the Administration (not the one we have but the one we will get next year) stepping up to the plate and funding Forest Service Recreation programs. I believe that they will do so, but I know that they will not do it if another means -- e.g. fees -- allows them to dodge this responsibility.

Forest Service money-grubbing is mainly seen in the incessant pleadings for special projects/programs in the budgeting process. (and this is more a systemic problem only tangentially related to Rec Fees). But it is also seen in the ongoing disaster of the Southern Nevada Land Enhancement Act (as sponsored by Senator Reed) and the wierdness that accrues to places (those seldom-seen FS anomalies) that have too much money thrown at them. It seems too bad that most of the FS's energy goes to acquiring money and too little to conservation and preservation.

It is true that the FS doesn't YET have "amusement park" attractions. Such would come to be only be a gradual, creeping process. It is one I do not want to see happen. I'd rather that National public lands remain primitive, free from the commercialization that might happen, arguably is beginning to happen as too much emphasis is placed on markets, marketing, and business-like practices.

Dave Iverson | Jun 19, 2008 1:29:51 PM


Posted by: Rich Fragosa

Let's not forget about the growing back log of repairs. The forest service keeps expanding this by building new facilities that do nothing but add to the list, rather then fixing the one that have been on the list for 60 years+. With this policy how can they ever come out of the hole? It seems this is part of "we need more money" game Mark Rey likes to play to justify charging fees. Don't let Mark and his word weaving fool you! He comes from the timber and pulp industry and it seems to me that he is the wrong person for his position.

Rich Fragosa | Jun 23, 2008 12:47:15 PM


Posted by: Borealis

I hate paying fees, but it is more important to me to have the National Forests properly cared for. The easy answer is to demand that Congress give more funding, but that is just not going to happen -- schools, healthcare, military, and roads will always take priority. The fees are a very small part of the cost of recreation-- most people spend much more on gasoline getting to the forests. But I do object to spending more than 10% of the fee to collect the fee.

The bottom line is that most things given away for free do not get taken care of. I would hate for that to happen to the National Forests.

Borealis | Jun 23, 2008 5:52:07 PM


Posted by: Travis

I do not doubt that Mr. Iverson is well-intentioned, but the claim that I have any private property right in public lands is a fiction. Public lands do not belong to me, they belong to the government. Mr Iverson and fseee do not believe every individual citizen (the individual is the fundamental unit of life, not the collecive) is an owner. In fact, they have opposed claims of ownership by citizens they do not like, i.e., loggers. If Mr. Iverson, et al want to use the public lands to satisfy their particular prefernece, let them buy it with their money and use it as they choose. I will be happy to defend their right as owners to protect it from all predators.

Travis Cork

Travis | Jun 27, 2008 2:16:51 AM


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