Honorable John Berry, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management
Department of the Interior, Washington, DC
Lyle Laverty, Regional Forester,
U.S. Forest Service, Washington,DC
David Brown, Executive Director,
America Outdoors, Knoxville, TN
Adena Cook, Public Lands Director,
Blue Ribbon Coalition, Idaho Falls, ID
Dunham Gooding, President,
Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, Boulder, CO
Art Peterson, President and CEO,
Kampgrounds of America, Billlngs, MT
The motorized recreation community has long recognized the value of contributing to the construction and maintenance of the recreation facilities that they use. Managed on federal lands per Executive Orders 11644 and 11989, which mandate the development of travel plans that address impacts, Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) users realized unless they took an active part in keeping up their trails, they would quickly have no place to ride.
In many states, they lobbied their state legislatures for self-imposed taxes in the form of registration fees and gas taxes. They worked to oversee the distribution of these funds through state agencies. The best known example of these programs is in the State of California, commonly referred to as the 'Green Sticker' fund. Yearly contributions to federal land management agencies in California have lately averaged $8,562,000 per year.
OHV users have also contributed directly through challenge cost-share projects and volunteerism. This sweat equity has paid off. Many trails and facilities on federal land are kept open and kept up that otherwise would have been closed to OHV use.
Backcountry horse users have also been enthusiastic contributors to the facilities they use. Unlike the motorized recreationist, they are not governed by executive orders or excluded from designated Wilderness. However, they have been stung by criticism of horse use impacts. They enjoy facilities such as unloading areas and clear trails that they would not have unless they did the work themselves. They have made extensive use of the challenge cost-share program and direct volunteerism.
The snowmobile community provides the biggest example of user-created, user-paid facilities. Funded entirely by gas taxes, registration fees, trail permits, and volunteer clubs, the snowmobile trail system in North America has an estimated 200,000 miles of signed and maintained trails. Snowmobilers in the United States and Canada spend over $6 billion on their sport each year.
The dollars realized by snowmobile tourism are also significant. For example, Wyoming reports an annual economic impact of $189.5 million; Vermont $165 million; and Montana $103 million. Organized snowmobilers also contribute heavily to charity in addition to the support of their facilities. In 1994/95, clubs raised over $2.6 million for charities such as Easter Seals, Special Olympics, and Multiple Sclerosis.
The BlueRibbon Coalition and other national organizations, observing the success of state gas tax funded recreation programs, took this concept national. They worked very hard to ensure the passage of the National Recreation Trails Fund Act in 1991. This fund is allocated to and administered by the states, and has been very popular with a wide spectrum of recreationists. It was re-authorized and given contract authority in the recently passed ISTEA reauthorization and is now called the Recreation Trails Program (RTP).
FEDERAL FEE DEMONSTRATION PROJECT PROPOSAL
When we heard that Congress was considering the authorization of fees for recreation on public land on a demonstration project basis, we were not opposed. We had convincing experience that recreationists can and will contribute to the facilities that they need.
Through our long collaboration with other resource users, we realized how much loggers, miners, and ranchers p aid to use public land in fees, leases, and other investments, While segments of the recreation community paid into the system as previously described, many were 'getting a free ride'.
We did not oppose, and were even cautiously supportive of the fee demonstration project proposal. We did, however, offer these caveats and advice:
· The fees should be equitable and aimed at recovering costs where direct services were provided.
· The fee system should be efficient and convenient.
· The fee system must make sense and should be integrated with other fees. Credit should be given when a user has already paid into the system by other means such as a special tax or registration.
· Revenues are returned to benefit the resources and programs used by those paying the fees.
These suggestions, with which we concur, were offered by Robert Dingman, Washington Representative of the American Motorcyclist Association in testimony before the House Committee on Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, August 3, 1995.
In March 1966, H.R. 2107 passed. It authorized the agencies to collect fees in selected areas. The legislation provided that, after an administration percent was collected, the money would be spent locally. The agencies began to identify and select sites where they thought this would work.
In some areas, these projects were met with strong resistance. Nowhere was this more vociferously opposed than Siskiyou County, California near Mount Shasta. Senior citizens, staunch conservatives, members of the New Age community, County Supervisors, business owners, artists, mechanics, and students-people who previously disagreed about everything-were united against the proposal.
People disbelieved that the money would stay local, especially since the Forest Service announced that six additional employees would be needed to implement the fee plan; one resident stated, "If you impose fees, your budget will continue to be cut and you will be forced to live on those fees. That s what you can expect."
County Supervisor Joan Smith addressed the Forests' lack of foresight, "As a member of the board of supervisors of this county, I strongly advise you not to participate in this pilot program. We have repeatedly asked you for a copy of your business plan, but you have never supplied it."
"If you are determined to proceed with fees, I ask you to consider waiving the fee for locals. I do not feel you should punish locals who are already dealing with reduced timber harvests and double-digit unemployment," Smith said.
Siskiyou County passed a resolution opposing the fee demonstration program which was endorsed by the Siskiyou League of Cities, the Montague City Council, and the County Fish & Game Commission. They appealed for the assistance of Congressman Wally Herger. As a result, the Forest Service withdrew its proposal to charge access fees in the Mount Shasta area.
Opposition was less determined, but articulate and pointed in other areas. Sportsmen felt they were being charged double since they already paid an excise tax on their equipment (the Pittman-Robinson fund). Others were not given credit for their contribution through gas tax and registration funds. Many felt it inappropriate for fees to be established on entire areas, previously accessible for free.
Ron Parker, Sportsmen's Council of Northern California, stated, "They claim to improve service and facilities at recreational sites, or at least that was their original claim. If that be the case, why do they need to place access fees on the whole national forest? They don't have toilets, piped in water, etc. at every corner of the road. Maybe the real purpose is to curb public activities on federal managed land."
Mike Ahrens of the California Desert Coalition expressed similar sentiments, "First, I think that if a use does not have a direct cost to the agency, then the use should be free. In most cases, this means dispersed trail and road use. The reality is the agencies do precious little to maintain trails and roads. Second, I would like to see a program that would build a relationship where the recreationists would be encouraged to develop funding to build new recreation facilities that the feds collect fees at or maintenance."
Ron Sehiller of the High Desert Multiple Use Coalition reported on the program's lack of consideration for existing fees, "Most of the sportsmen's organizations that I am involved with have taken a pretty hard position against the user fees. Like many OHV enthusiasts, we feel that we pay more than our share."
"The sportsmen pay significant license fees and additional species-specific stamp fees for the privilege of hunting and fishing on public lands. In addition, there are fees for deer tags, bear tags, and even non-refundable fees just for the opportunity to enter a lottery for special hunts. On top of that, there are the hidden fees in the form of taxes paid when purchasing firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle, or other related supplies and equipment."
Opposition has intensified where the program has been poorly administered. An organization called "Keep the Sespe Wild" (KSWC), located in Ojai, California reported on how the Adventure Pass Program in the Los Padres National Forest generated more frustration than revenue.
The organization cited a report released b the Los Padres National Forest. The report stated that out of a total of $66,300 from the sale of Adventure Passes over the busiest summer months (July, August, and September) an average of only $1,600 was available for distribution for site-specific improvements in each of the five Los Padres Forest Ranger Districts. Enforcement staffing for the program, however, required just short of $42,000.
The $66,300 raised is less than 30% of the $223,267 anticipated by Los Padres Forest planners. Income during the less active winter months is expected to decline while overhead costs will remain the same.
"Reversing a hundred years of free access to our forests surrenders a principle that shouldn't be sold at any price," said KSWC Director Kevin Looper.
In a dramatic worst-case scenario, District 36 AMA Executive Director Bill Dart reports the fee demonstration project's use as a bludgeon to harass recreationists. At a recent permitted competitive event in the Los Padres National Forest, a $5 per day Adventure Pass was required of participants even though other user fees were collected.
The Forest Service did not allow the host organization to be an "Adventure Pass" vendor, but sent its own staff to the event to sell the permits. That staff did not bring an adequate supply of passes and ran out on Saturday afternoon. No personnel was avail able to sell the p asses on Sunday. However, on Sunday, five Forest Service enforcement personnel showed up and cited all competitors who did not have a pass. On top of that, they described a complex and burdensome process to clear the violation that was different from procedures elsewhere. See exhibit 1 for a complete account of this fiasco.
Not all our information on the implementation of the fee demonstration program has been negative. Near my home town of Idaho Falls, Idaho, a project headed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was set up to supplement user facilities along a 62-mile stretch of the South Fork of the Snake River. This project has been deemed successful and supported by river users. The South Fork 1'ee Project has these characteristics which are likely responsible for its success:
· Advance scoping among river users indicated that there would be support for the project.
· The project was limited to enhancing access for river users, not spread through the entire forest or district.
· An interagency committee was set up to oversee management and disbursement of the funds. This interagency committee includes B LM, Forest Service, Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game, Idaho Dept. of Parks & Recreation, Bonneville, Jefferson, and Madison counties, and county law enforcement. Users are directly represented through the counties' recreation and boating committees.
· Volunteers were used to explain the program during the first months of its implementation.
· The program is responsive to modification to make it more convenient.
· Administrative costs are minimal and collected funds are used for highly visible and high priority projects.
See exhibit 2 for a complete description of this project.
In order to properly assess the fee demonstration project, we must reconcile the difference between various groups' willingness to lobby, tax, and work to support their recreation and the public's resistance to recreation user fees on federal land. I certainly do not have all the answers. However, here are some observations based on the information summarized above:
· Fee demonstration projects were pre-selected by federal land managers, while the ideas and projects from the user supported programs originate with the users themselves. Grass-roots support came first, then the program.
Where fee demonstration projects had no grass-roots support, and federal land managers often explained to local users that the fee demonstration project was a "done deal", and that they had no say in whether or not it would be implemented. People had the impression that it would be imposed whether they liked it or not.
· Often, public benefits from the fee demonstration program were ill-defined and vague. They were described in vague terms, "better campgrounds, better maintenance, etc." The public was not sure how the money would be spent, or if it would be spent well. They were suspicious of overheard costs, as described above, over which they would have no control. They were also suspicious that fee programs, once entrenched, would NOT be used in the area where they originated, but would go to general operating costs of the agency.
User supported programs define their objectives specifically. For example, "x" miles of groomed snowmobile trail or a new groomer; a new trailhead which users have identified in advance as needed. These programs also have user oversight through committees that are answerable to the group. Supporting groups feel they have some control over their user supported programs. The South Fork Fee program incorporated these objectives.
· In spite of repeated warnings, the demonstration fee program paid no heed to fees that different user groups had already contributed. Double-dipping is often the order of the day.
Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR), which manages several successful user supported programs, Director Yvonne Ferrell said recently. "The multitude of fee systems only confuses and frustrates the public. The federal agencies must work with the states to make fees work."
Federal land managing agencies are not culturally well suited to managing recreation fee programs. These programs demand a close relationship with the customer. Federal employees typically see little relationship between their paycheck and people who use the Forest. There is a fundamental lack of trust between the public and land managers which will be difficult to overcome.
As noted above, there are exceptions. An enlightened land manger can use common sense and be responsive to the needs of the community. We shouldn't have to legislate common sense.
Within the existing structure of the fee program there is room for success. However, without specific direction, it seems unlikely that success will be consistently achieved. Any successful fee program will address the problems identified above. ft is most important that the disbursement of the fees should be directed by a local committee composed of users who have contributed. Only in this way can essential grass-roots support for a fee program be achieved.
Above all, the fee demonstration program must be considered as a means to enhance existing services and facilities, not as a way to replace agency income lost from the collapse of the timber sale program. Senator Larry Craig has frequently noted that the Forest Service, in particular, has become a revenue consuming agency instead of a revenue producing agency; this has become a major problem. Agencies should not expect to recoup this lost revenue from recreationists.