Decamping Politics From Public Lands

Tacoma News Tribune
July 4, 2004

By J. Bishop Grewell

When a Western Republican senator and the head of the Sierra Club share sound bites, alarms should ring. Currently, just such a duo is undermining one of the most successful initiatives we have seen on our public lands.

The two men oppose the congressionally initiated Fee Demonstration program. Enacted by Congress in 1996, this program raised fees at national parks, forests, and other public lands, and allowed the managers to keep 80 percent of what they collected for maintenance and service improvements. This self-reliance broke with the past, when visitor fees were simply funneled to the federal treasury.

But Senator Larry Craig (R-Id) persuaded the Senate to pass a bill (S-1107) that would severely restrict the program. These are public lands, and they should remain open to the public, says Senator Craig. His words parrot those of Sierra Club president Carl Pope who has complained about Fee Demonstration: "The American people already own these lands, and should have free and open access to them."

Well, lumberjacks and ranchers are Americans too but they don t expect to use the public lands for free. Hikers and backpackers apparently think they should be different. Unwilling to pay their share, they ignore the fact that recreation affects federal lands as much as timber harvesting, mining, or grazing.

The sewage system at Yellowstone National Park was overwhelmed by park visitors disposing eighteen rolls of toilet paper daily in 1998 and 1999. As Yellowstone dumped raw sewage into nearby pristine ponds, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued water quality citations to the Park Service. Meanwhile, throughout the park and forest systems, thousands of miles of trails suffer disrepair. Recreation does have a serious impact.

Fee Demo helped fix these problems, but Senator Craig s legislation would strip this resource from the other land agencies. The senator argues that he is protecting public access to federal lands. Empirical research shows, however, that fees are so nominal that they exclude no one from the federal estate. If fees did prohibit access, coupons to low-income citizens could remedy the problem.

The senator let his real motivation slip when he commented, "We are not going to start treating the Forest Service, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and wildlife refuges as if they were national parks." Apparently, Fee Demonstration has proven too successful. Funds from the program could lead Forest Service and BLM managers to favor recreation and shift away from competing timber and grazing activities threatening important constituencies for the senator.

One then would suppose that Carl Pope and the Sierra Club would adore Fee Demonstration at least until one remembers that Pope s constituency wants a free ride (or walk as the case may be).

Pope pulls out an old canard to justify his opposition to fees: If Congress would increase funding to federal lands, we wouldn't need Fee Demonstration. This argument is wrong. For the past four decades, increases in staff and operating budgets for the land agencies outpaced visitation, even when adjusted for inflation, but dilapidation accelerated.

The land agencies are not under-funded; they are mis-funded. Congressional members prefer to appropriate dollars for sexy projects that allow them to cut ribbons and reward contributors with lucrative construction contracts. Labor-intensive projects, including trail work, most maintenance, and on-the-ground research (things that Fee Demonstration can support) don t produce photo opportunities or political kickbacks.

Given Pope's mistaken claim in his new book, Strategic Ignorance, that Fee Demonstration has already been made permanent by President Bush, he may have not explored the issue sufficiently. He probably doesn't recognize that the real benefit from Fee Demonstration is the incentives it creates. Fee Demonstration puts dollars directly in land managers' hands, providing them with a strong incentive to fund the services that bring visitors back, including maintenance, trail work, and protecting environmental resources. The more visitors who return to a site, the greater the budget for continued stewardship.

Anyone who cares about protecting our public lands for the future should endorse Fee Demonstration. And there is still a chance in the House of Representatives. A bill offered by Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula would make the program permanent for all four federal land agencies. But with the strange bedfellows arrayed on the other side, advocates for our public lands cannot rest easy.

J. Bishop Grewell, an associate of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, is author of the new paper "Recreation Fees Four Philosophical Questions," available from PERC.

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J. Bishop Grewell, is a former  research associate for PERC. He is a graduate of Stanford University, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Northwestern Law School. He is currently practicing law in Chicago.
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