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National forest fees could be permanent

By The Associated Press

BEND - Recreational fees required to use national forests and parks could

become permanent if the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act is approved

by Congress this month.

The fee program began in 1996 to ease the cost of operating and maintaining

federal recreation sites.

Congress also stressed the fees would be used to improve quality.

The National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land

Management and the U.S. Forest Service collected $175.7 million during

fiscal 2002, up from $172.8 million in 2001.

But while some money was redirected into local projects, data released by

the four federal agencies also revealed that a substantial amount of the

fees has remained unused each year.

The money has been accumulating year after year, reaching $295.8 million.

"We really do not want to build up a fund,'' said Rex Holloway, spokesman

for the Forest Service office in Portland. "The money is used to maintain

existing facilities that we currently have. We are needing these fees to

maintain those facilities.''

In total, the Forest Service spent $45.3 million from the program to improve

sites where the fees were collected in 2002.

There was still enough money left from earlier years to record a $19 million

rollover into fiscal year 2003.

The accumulation of cash, however, does not necessarily mean the maintenance

requirements at all fee sites are being met, according to a report by the

U.S. General Accounting Office, or GAO.

Current legislation requires 80 percent of the fees collected at a certain

site be used at that location.

In testimony before a House Resources committee, GAO officials said the

requirement causes some sites to "generate revenue in excess of their

high-priority needs'' while the same needs "at other sites, which do not

collect as much in fee revenues, remained unmet.''

The GAO said the requirement "may inadvertently create funding imbalances

between sites.''

Critics note the fee also was implemented to "enhance visitor experience.''

A National Park Service-supported report released in June 2003 by the Social

Research Laboratory at Northern Arizona University showed the public to be

generally supportive of the fees.

According to the survey of 3,515 households, 80 percent of visitors who paid

to enter the National Park system said the amount was "just about right.''

But Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness in Bend, said the

report is skewed.

"When they say that the demo fee program is popular,'' Silver said, "they

are lying. The measure is intensely unpopular.''

Silver said 306 groups around the nation originally opposed the program

while legislatures in three states - Oregon, California and Colorado - have

passed resolutions opposing the recreational fees.


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