At least two outdoor groups plan to seek a repeal of controversial legislation that allows the federal government to collect access fees on millions of acres of public lands that have historically been accessible at no charge.
The legislation, dubbed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, was approved by Congress in early December, without public debate, as part of a $388 billion appropriations bill.
“We think there’s a good chance we can get this bill repealed in the next Congress,” said Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Western No Fee Coalition, a Norwood, Colo., organization that has been among the most vocal opponents of the legislation.
The bill essentially continues the Fee Demonstration Program, a pilot program launched in 1996 as a multiagency effort to raise additional funds for public lands.
Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, a Bend, Ore., environmental group, was similarly disturbed by Congress’s approval of the legislation and vowed to seek its repeal.
“I think it would be a fair assessment for me to say that the way in which the recreational access tax was implemented has greatly increased the profile of what was already a contentious issue,” he said. “It has turned some fence sitters into folks who are now seriously upset with the way that this was sneaked into an appropriations bill rather than openly debated.”
The legislation approved in December specifically authorizes the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation to collect access fees to cover the costs of repairs and maintenance on public lands. Although there is widespread support for allowing the National Park Service to collect these fees, there has been considerable opposition to the Fee Demonstration Program by a number of outdoor groups for a variety of reasons.
The Western No Fee Coalition, for example, has criticized the Fee Demonstration Program, saying it fosters the increased commercialization of public lands, while failing to address the real problem: Congress’s underfunding of public lands. The coalition has called attention to Government Accounting Office studies, which have noted that federal agencies have spent much of the revenue collected through the Fee Demonstration Program in fee collection activities.
Not everyone sees the legislation in the same light, however.
Sue Bray, executive director of the Good Sam Club, said she was pleased with the legislation.
“The new Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act has some of the provisions I asked for,” she said, “including a sunset of 10 years. I’m also delighted that it calls for a citizens advisory committee, with what appears to be well-balanced interests represented. It also is inviting increased public participation, even to the point of holding a competition for the public to design the recreation pass.
“I was also pleased to see that they are grandfathering the existing Golden Age, Golden Access (and) National Parks Passport holders, and that seniors over the age of 62 can buy a lifetime pass for $10. And, for the first time, volunteers can earn passes in exchange for their services.”
Bray added, “As much as we don’t want to pay additional fees to enjoy our public lands, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. If we don’t support them, they just won’t be available to us, or our children or grandchildren.”
Blake Selzer, a legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the legislation approved in December also has more restrictions than the original Fee Demonstration Program. “The question is really going to be, ‘How is this thing going to be implemented?’ ” he said.
The federal government is trying to answer that question. In fact, committees were being established to review the differences between the previous Fee Demonstration Program and the new legislation, said John Wright, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior. “Fees that are inconsistent with the act will not be continued,” he said.
Some of the language contained in the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act is fairly straightforward. According to the act, the fees can be used for repairs and maintenance; habitat restoration directly related to wildlife-dependent recreation that is limited to hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, or photography; law enforcement; visitor information, visitor service and visitor needs assessments.
An average of no more than 15% of fees collected can be used for administration and overhead costs related to the recreation fee program. Fees cannot be used for biological monitoring of endangered species or candidate species on federal recreational lands or waters.
The act also calls for the establishment of Recreational Resource Advisory Committees, which can provide public input and recommendations regarding the implementation of fee collection activities in various areas across the country. The secretaries of Interior and Agriculture retain the right, however, to reject the committees’ recommendations.