Revised plan refuels battle over forest fees

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    Feb 17, 2000
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    Sunday, February 27, 2000, 08:24 p.m. Pacific

    Revised plan refuels battle over forest fees

    by Florangela Davila
    Seattle Times staff reporter
    Should the price to park at a U.S. Forest Service
    trailhead for a day be equal to renting a video? Or
    should access to those lands be free, with tax dollars
    already paying for that right?

    The back-and-forth over recreational-user fees is
    heating up as the Forest Service prepares to announce
    a revised fee system in the Pacific Northwest in
    March. Agency officials hope the changes will defuse
    some of the public backlash the fees have produced
    since they were established as a pilot program four
    years ago.

    Forest Service officials said they have simplified the
    fees and will test-market them in Oregon and
    Washington, as well as in Sedona, Ariz., where local
    authorities volunteered to try them.

    The new fees will be based on questionnaires,
    interviews and a study of what the public is willing
    to pay, said Stephanie Hague, coordinator of the
    agency's Market Resource Group.

    Recreational-user fees aren't new on public lands. In
    1908 tourists were charged $5 a car to enter Mount
    Rainier National Park. And, under the 1996 demo
    program, national parks almost doubled their entrance
    fees. But much of the criticism has been directed at
    the Forest Service, which implemented fees for the
    first time.

    In January, the 8,000-member Washington Trails
    Association, which says it is the largest hiking group
    in the state, voted to support the user-fee program
    being tested in some national forests across the
    United States, including the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie
    National Forest. The group joins some snowmobilers
    and motorcyclists and dozens of outdoor-industry
    groups touting the fees as an effective tool to
    generate revenue for national forests and services.

    The Mountaineers, on the other hand, may soon change
    its position and come out against the program.

    The 15,000-member group, the third-largest
    recreational club in the country, would stand
    alongside climbers and some whitewater rafters, the
    Sierra Club, Patagonia and the local man who
    co-invented Polarfleece. All are calling for an end to
    the fees.

    "There's a feeling of unfairness," said incoming
    Mountaineers President Ed Henderson. "The Forest
    Service subsidizes things like timber, mining and
    grazing. And they want to charge us to take a walk?"

    Four agencies - the Forest Service, the National Park
    Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S.
    Fish and Wildlife Service - participate in the current
    program, which Congress authorized. The agencies
    charge for such things as parking at trailheads,
    docking a boat or taking a ranger-led kayaking trip.

    The fees on Forest Service lands have brought in $30
    million gross to the agency, according to officials.
    The result? Improved campsites, parking areas, better
    signs and toilets.

    Forest officials said the fees are helping whittle
    away an $11 billion maintenance backlog.

    To illustrate the need, U.S. Forest Service chief
    Michael Dombeck recently said his agency has only
    enough money to maintain 17 percent of the 383,000
    miles of roads in the national forests. This when
    there are 1.7 million tourists a day on forest roads,
    he said.

    In 1999, the Washington fees generated $5.4 million,
    according to the Forest Service. At the Mount
    Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the $3 daily and $25
    annual Trail Park Pass generated $450,000.

    That revenue, said the trails group, makes the fees
    practical and necessary. "Nobody likes to put out more
    money, but right now it's one of the prime sources to
    get our trail maintenance done," said Ira Spring,
    author of the Washington hiking guides and co-founder
    of the trails group.

    But in some cases under the current fee structure,
    visitors to the national forests are being charged
    multiple fees, sometimes in one day.

    In California, opposition grew so much that the
    Legislature passed a resolution urging repeal of the
    program. The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and
    Berkeley City Council passed similar resolutions.

    To curb further criticism, the Forest Service has
    spent the past year and a half figuring out how to
    improve its pilot fee program, which critics fear is
    garnering congressional support and will be made
    permanent next year.

    The agency also has spent $250,000 to develop a
    marketing plan for the revised fee program. Hague said
    the marketing effort is not paid for by user fees.

    "For years, the Forest Service has been criticized for
    not providing good customer service," said Hague.
    "There are things we wanted to improve on. We're only
    charging fees because the public is telling us to
    charge fees. Our reading is that the public is
    accepting and understands the need for fees to offset
    sagging budgets."

    Hague said the agency's research shows that the public
    is willing to pay camping and boat-launching fees.
    Unpopular, she said, is having to pay for a drive
    through the forest or to swim, picnic and stop at
    scenic overlooks.

    The Washington, D.C.-based American Recreation
    Coalition, probably the biggest fee supporter outside
    the Forest Service, includes associations of
    snowmobilers, recreation-vehicle users and
    motorcyclists. Other members of the coalition include
    the Walt Disney Co., Chevron, Exxon and the American
    Petroleum Institute.

    "I don't think I should just look to the taxpayers of
    America to pay for my (outdoor) experience," said
    coalition Executive Director Derrick Crandall.

    Moreover, the fees minimally affect the public's
    pocketbook, he said. "We're talking $20, $30, maybe
    $40 for a carload of people a year," he said. "Think
    about what we pay for cell phones, cable TV or renting
    movies at Blockbuster."

    But a Mountaineers committee, in a decision it will
    take to its board, said the fees single out
    recreationists and create economic barriers.

    Doug Hoschek, a longtime Seattle resident who
    co-invented Polarfleece, agrees.

    "There is no way in the world they can charge fees and
    not be discriminating against people who are young,"
    Hoschek said. "People who don't have a lot of money,
    like seniors. Twenty-five dollars a year - that's a
    lot of money to a high-school kid."

    Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company


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