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Public recreation fees are extended at least 10 more years by Congress

Money goes toward maintenance of land

By Matthew Daly

December 4, 2004

WASHINGTON - Recreation fees charged to people who picnic, hike or canoe in
national forests and other public lands will stay in place for at least 10
more years under a giant spending bill approved by Congress.

The fees were first imposed in 1996 on a temporary basis and have been
renewed every two years since. Lawmakers have resisted efforts to make them
permanent, citing their widespread unpopularity, particularly in the West.

Federal land managers say charging $5 for use of marked trails and restrooms
- or $10 for a campsite - ensures that those who use the land help pay to
maintain it. The fees generate about $170 million per year for the Forest
Service and Department of the Interior, which use the money to maintain
restrooms, collect trash and provide other amenities.

But critics call the fees a hidden tax that discourages the public from
using public lands.

The fee "amounts to nothing more that a stealth double tax for hikers,
hunters, picnickers or anyone wishing to spend a day at the beach or in the
forest with their family," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

He and other critics were outraged that the measure extending the fees for
at least 10 years was inserted into the $388 billion spending bill at the
last minute by Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, an Appropriations subcommittee
chairman who has no public lands in his district.

"This was a victory of pork over principle," said Robert Funkhouser,
president of the Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which has
worked to oppose the fee program. "Ralph Regula is responsible for the first
tax increase of the Bush administration."

A spokesman for Regula could not be reached for comment.

Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett called the new law "a very
important accomplishment by the Congress."

The National Park Service and other agencies have long had the ability to
charge fees, Scarlett said, but now can keep much of the money on site, so
it can be used for maintenance and improvements where it is collected.

"Our No. 1 reason (for the fees) is to provide enhanced services and
facilities to the public," she said.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said
the bill should put an end to fears that fees will be misused, because
Congress has laid out circumstances under which they can be collected. Only
developed sites, with some type of restroom or picnic area, will be allowed
to charge fees.

The Forest Service recently stopped collecting fees at 400 sites after the
public complained the sites had no amenities.

Even with the safeguards, some activists call the fees fundamentally unfair.
Scott Silver, executive director of Oregon-based Wild Wilderness, said there
is virtually no federal land near his central Oregon home that does not
charge a fee.

Those who argue that a $5 hike costs less than a movie or book miss the
point, Silver said.

"A movie is a private good that comes from a company that produces it," he
said. "The forest is our birthright. To equate the two is a false equation."
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