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Recreation fees on some federal lands quietly passed Congress in the recent 3,000-page appropriations bill, and the move has irked some editorial writers in the West.
“The proposal never received even one public hearing and was rammed into law by a congressman who has no public lands in his district,” the Denver Post wrote in an editorial Nov. 28. “It was lawmaking at its worst.”
The recreation fee program started as a demonstration project in the 1990s, the newspaper reported. Funding shortfalls had left federal land agencies unable to handle soaring recreation use.
As an experiment, Congress let the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service collect fees on a few heavily used areas. The program then was expanded.
But, the Post argued in its editorial, the program was badly managed, causing a backlash. The Government Accountability Office found that the Forest Service used appropriated funds to shore up the recreation fee program, the opposite of what Congress intended.
A “rider” allowing the agencies to charge recreation fees for the next decade was added to the appropriations bill by U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican.
The measure, according to the Post editorial writers, doesn’t fix the program’s flaws.
“In fact, it ignores evidence that how the agencies have really run the fee program is very different from what they’ve told Congress they’ve done. For example, Regula’s amendment says that except for the National Parks, the agencies shouldn’t use the recreation fees as de facto access fees. Yet that’s exactly what the recreation fees have become – in Colorado for example, there’s no way to legally access Mount Evans without paying the fee.”
The newspaper also took issue with the penalties for not paying a recreation fee, calling the $5,000 fine and six months in jail “wildly out of proportion to the offense. By comparison, damaging a fragile wetland with an all-terrain vehicle nets just a $75 fine.”
A different approach was championed by U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican. His bill, unanimously approved by the Senate, would have kept the fee program just for the Park Service, “the only federal agency that could prove it has used the extra money wisely,” according to the Post editorial. “House Speaker Dennis Hastert figuratively slapped the Senate, because he never let Thomas’ bill see the light of day, but let Regula slip his rider into the budget bill.”
Thomas hopes to introduce his bill again next year.