The Montana and Colorado legislatures recently passed resolutions demanding that Congress repeal the fees required for recreational use of certain federal lands and are hoping other states will follow suit.
According to an Associated Press report, Congress imposed the fees in 1996 and has renewed them every two years. Then late last year, lawmakers extended the fee program, know as “Fee Demo,” for at least a decade. The Forest Service collected $47 million in recreation fees in fiscal 2004.
“We’d like to see other states join us,” said Paul Clark, the Montana Democrat whose resolution contends the very way of life in his state requires free access to public lands.
Oregon legislators are advancing a similar measure worded a bit more gently – Congress is “respectfully urged” to undo the fees – but have not cast a final vote.
The bill extending the fees was approved as part of a larger appropriations bill in November, and President Bush signed it in December. The fees are imposed for use of marked trails, parking at scenic turnouts and on such activities as boat launches and using camp sites.
Some critics fear the use of access fees will grow, encouraging Congress to continue to reduce the amount of money it regularly gives federal land agencies.
Supporters of fees, though, say the amount charged is modest and helps pay for amenities and maintenance not covered in regular budgets. Most federal lands remains open to the public at no charge.
“The program all along has been a way for us to ensure that we are providing a high-quality recreation experience and have the kind of recreation facilities that people expect,” said Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman.
Holly Fretwell, a researcher at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., argues the fees establish a link between land managers and users, increasing the likelihood that managers will respond to what users want in services and facilities.
Fretwell also said user fees are appropriate at parks. “There’s no reason someone in Ohio should be paying for my ability to go camping in the Gallatin National Forest,” she said.
While the various resolutions by angry states have no force of law, they tell Congress the issue is of more than just passing interest to the people back home, said Jeremy Meadows of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Colorado resolution, for instance, states that the recreation fees amount to double taxation because Americans already pay taxes to support public lands. It also says they contradict the idea that public lands “are places where everyone is granted access and is welcome.”
Access fees are collected through an honor system or at staffed booths, depending on the location. The standard penalty for not paying the access fee is a $100 fine, said Paula Nelson, spokeswoman at the Forest Service’s regional office in Missoula, Mont.