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June 16, 2008

Congressional "Pay to Play" Oversight Hearing

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:


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 | Comments (6) | TrackBack