The newsletter of AMERICAN TRAILS -- NEW YEARS 1998

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Should we pay to play? Two views on trail user fees

By Gary Sprung, Communications Director, International Mountain Bicycling Association

When the government provides a recreation service, such as water and pit toilets in public campgrounds, should the users pay fees to the government for that use? Most people will agree that developed recreation facilities cost significant public money and provide obvious services, and thus justifiably require payment. But the issue gets much more tricky when we start talking about dispersed travel, camping, and plain old "hanging out" on our public lands. Here are two viewpoints addressing the question, "Should we pay user fees for general entry and recreation upon the public lands?"

NO: We should resist this infringement on our freedom

Our public lands are symbols of freedom. They are the birthright and heritage of every citizen. We own them. We should not have to pay fees for the mere act of entering and walking upon our public property.

The National Park Service has long charged such fees at those little collection booths on the entrance roads. But our largest public land agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, have never charged such fees because Congress has wisely not authorized it. The ostensible reason is that Forest Service and BLM lands have innumerable access points and often are intermingled with private property, so fee collection is not feasible. But collection really is not difficult. A simple requirement that users carry entry fee permits, combined with on-the-ground enforcement rangers, can implement a system. Perhaps Congress, when it rejected general entry fees, understood the meaning of freedom.

Recreation user fees violate an old, valuable heritage of America, a value associated with the frontier: the freedom of movement. Our public lands are the last bastion of free movement, the place where you can generally go where you wish, so long as you do no harm. The cowboys who drove livestock up from Texas to the Rockies in the mid-19th Century epitomized it, traveling across the open, unfenced, not yet privatized landscape.

Some might go so far as to call this free movement a right, but it is certainly not enshrined in law. Government managers often regulate movement, and user fees might seem another version of that regulation. Whether right or privilege, free movement, constrained only by the maxim to not harm the land and other people, is a value we should not easily dismiss.

Fee payments are standard for other public lands users, such as logging, ranching and recreation outfitters. But public recreation is not commercial, not gaining profit from the use of our lands. It's less like operating a business, more like going to church.

Another argument points to the degraded conditions on our public lands and maintains that the people who benefit should pay for maintenance, recovery and improvements to wildlife and open landscapes. But the benefit is hardly limited to recreationists. It accrues to all people in the society. Polls show that most people value the protection of these places, even if they do not visit them. The "user pays" argument also ignores the fact that the existing damage was for the most part not caused by recreation, but rather by oil companies, automobiles, miners, loggers and ranchers. Shouldn't they be the ones who pay for the cleanup and restoration? Developers and for-profit users of public lands already cost the government more than it receives in fee revenues. So long as that subsidy continues, why should the not-for-profit users pay anything?

We also don't really need user fees. This country has its share of economic troubles, but remains as a whole fabulously wealthy. Our federal budget has room to send people into space, to build majestic museums, to create an immense network of highways, and to operate the most powerful military force ever on Earth. We all know that many of our federal dollars are also squandered on silly, unnecessary, corrupt or destructive forces. A symbol of this is the B-2 bomber, designed to make surprise nuclear attacks on distant nations, at a cost of $2.2 billion per airplane. Compare that with the total management budget of the BLM: $650 million. Let's simply build one less B-2, give half the saved money to BLM and put the rest into deficit reduction.

Members of Congress say that the fees will supplement, not replace, existing budget money spent on recreation and our federal land agencies. Do you believe them? We can reasonably predict that if they see a large stream of new revenue, they will use that opportunity to address our national debt through cuts in the federal lands recreation budgets. Such proposals have already been advanced in the House of Representatives.

It's all a matter of national priorities and power. If we impose general entry fees on Forest Service and BLM lands, we will be affirming that this nation values B-2s over outdoor recreation and freedom.

I like the idea of spending our tax dollars on the management of our public lands to enhance the nourishment of the human body, mind and spirit. Undeveloped recreation on public lands is much like education in our public schools. We don't charge kids to go to school and we should not charge citizens to visit public lands.


Yes: We should be practical and savvy and willingly pay fees

No one wants to pay more money to the government, but recreation user fees can significantly benefit the people who pay them and enhance our public lands for all people. Recreationists should proudly pay this tax.

Minor fee payments can produce major increases in recreation funding. This would allow agencies to repair decaying trails, outhouses, and campgrounds. The money can build new interpretive trails, scenic overlooks, and nature centers, and can acquire more public lands or public access routes for recreation. It can help to mitigate environmental damage caused by excessive and improper recreation, and can finance improvements to wildlife and ecosystems.

The frontier is long gone and the planet is getting crowded. Some actions which once were acceptable now cause too much impact on people or land. To minimize conflicts we need to devote increasing resources to solving problems created by uses of public lands.

Recreation is a use, much like ranching, logging, and mining. The fact that some uses are for profit and others are for fun is irrelevant. What matters is the impacts caused by use. It usually takes money to solve problems, and the people who cause the problems ought to at least help finance the solutions. Contributing to the mitigation of our recreation impacts is an honorable, just action. It will also be in our self-interest if we gain more opportunities for recreation. Moreover, it is politically wise.

There is an increasing hue and cry in the American political landscape about subsidies and, while most of the attention is focused on handouts to corporations and the poor, recreation is not immune. The burden of government debt means it's highly unlikely that our federal land agencies will see major increases in budgets. To Congress, recreation seems frivolous compared to the weighty problems of social security, health, national defense and economic growth. The trend is toward cuts, not increases, and this greatly threatens the infrastructure upon which public, outdoor recreation is based. The Forest Service, BLM, and National Park Service have a huge backlog of needed maintenance on trails and recreation facilities. Unless new sources of funds are found, the quality of public lands recreation will soon diminish, and perhaps be restricted.

Those who pay fees to the government generally get more attention and service from the government. Even though public lands are owned by all and theoretically are managed for the general common welfare, we all know that some folks get more than others. The Forest Service and BLM naturally listen to and invest more in ranching and logging partly because those interests pay fees, and those revenues make Congress happy with its public servants. So by paying fees, recreationists will improve their political standing in the eyes of critical decision-makers and the general public.

The fee system must be fair and wisely constructed. The money must be returned to recreation management and conservation, not go into the general treasury (where it might get spent on highways, health care, or the military). Most of the money should remain in the place or region where it was generated, so that recreationists and the general public can see tangible results. There should be a system to allow opportunities to earn permits through public service. This would allow poor people an alternative to paying scarce cash and would encourage more of the citizen volunteerism which will be critical for improvements in recreation management.

These practical considerations now outweigh philosophical notions about taxes and freedom. Maybe in the next hundred years our society will solve its biggest problems and will get out of debt, making fees no longer necessary. But today we face crisis on the public lands and a crossroads for the outdoor recreation lifestyle and economy. While much of the federal dollar is certainly spent inappropriately, moving that mountain will be slow and painful. Challenging the military or other sacred cows is not likely to produce solid results for recreation management.

Likely fee rates are on the order of one to five dollars a day, or $50 for a full year of access to most public lands in the United States. That's less than it costs for two trips to the movies for a family of four. It "buys" a lot more than a movie: increased opportunities for pleasure, learning and spiritual advancement, and simple joys like the ability to walk on a solid trail, rather than a bog of mud.

Congress has enacted a three-year demonstration program for user fees on various public land sites. Let's use the knowledge we are gaining through this to construct a program that will place recreation on a par with other uses of our public lands.

A Choice

So which one do I choose? In my practical moments, I favor the "Pro" argument. I think about the reality of budgets, the huge difficulty of changing Congressional budget priorities, and the potential political advantages. But my heart guides me toward the "No" side. Freedom is so fundamental. People die for it. Our public lands embody it. We should not accept the errors of our Congress in spending our tax dollars. We should insist that they simply should spend a little more of our tax dollars on this unique heritage. It's one thing to pay for use of a developed public facility like a campground or a museum, quite another to put a price tag on our basic ability to travel upon our own lands. General entry fees might be a sad mistake in the evolution of our public lands management.