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U.S. Representative George Radanovich says there will be a hearing on a bill that would require the public to buy a public lands “passport” to visit all land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management , National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for May 6, according to Radanovich, a California Republican who is chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands.
HR 3283 was introduced in October by seven Republicans led by Ralph Regula (R-OH). Of the seven co-sponsors, four are on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which originally implemented the controversial Recreational Fee Demonstration Program as part of a 1996 appropriations bill and has since extended it five times. They are Representatives Ralph Regula (R-OH), Zach Wamp (R-TN), Don Sherwood (R-PA), and John Peterson (R-PA). Other Co-Sponsors are Mark Souder (R-IN), Tom Petri (R-WI), and David Hobson (R-OH).
If passed, the bill would expand the Fee Demonstration Program and make it permanent. It would add lands administered by the Bureau of Reclamation to the program in addition to the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Visitors would be required to pay an access fee or to have a national pass to access almost all public lands administered by the federal agencies.
According to Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, “The No-Fee Coalition as well as individuals and organizations nationwide are surprised and disappointed that this bill would see the light of day. This is a new tax to access public lands and has been severely criticized both from within Congress and by the public at large.”
Provisions in HR 3283 include establishment of a National Pass called the “America the Beautiful Pass.” It would be required for access to lands administered by any of the five land management agencies. Indications are that it would cost at least $85 annually and could be much higher. The bill would also abolish the Golden Age Pass, which has traditionally been available as a lifetime pass to seniors for onetime cost of $10. Seniors would have to purchase an “America the Beautiful Pass” annually.
“Basic Fees” also would be charged for general access to all federal land as well as for visitor centers; dispersed areas with no investment and backcountry use; roads, pull-offs, and scenic overlooks; drinking fountains; restrooms; undeveloped parking and individual picnic tables.
“Expanded Fees” would be required for specialized facilities like campgrounds and boat launches.
The penalties for not having a pass on the roughly 700 million acres of federally administered public land without the required pass would be a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. Persons who fail to properly display a pass – even though one might have been purchased – would be considered guilty by the land management agencies.
“This is an outrageous bill that would make trespassers out of taxpayers and it’s an insult to our senior citizens,” said Funkhouser. “We will do all we can to see that it dies a well-deserved death in committee.”
On the Senate side of the Capitol, the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, chaired by Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, will be holding oversight hearings on Wednesday (April 21). It will take testimony about the implementation of the program from the Department of Interior and the Forest Service and will consider the advisability of permanently authorizing a Recreation Fee Program for the Forest Service, BLM and other Department of Interior Agencies. Testimony also will be heard from opponents of the program.
The Senate hearings could determine the fate of Senate bill S.1107, which was passed unanimously in February by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee but has not yet gone to the Senate floor for a vote. If passed as written, S.1107 would allow the Fee Demonstration Program to expire for the Forest Service, BLM, and Fish & Wildlife Service. Only the National Park Service fee program would continue. Opponents of the program have generally supported S.1107, but are leery of a campaign led by Interior Secretary Gale Norton to amend it with language similar to that in the House bill.
“Fee supporters in Congress and the land management agencies are doing everything they can to push the fee agenda. If they prevail in this, Americans, especially those of us in the West, will have to buy a pass to leave the city limits,” said No-Fee Coalition co-founder Kitty Benzar.
The Fee Demonstration Program is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2005.
The state legislatures of Colorado, California, New Hampshire and Oregon have passed resolutions calling for an end to the program as have dozens of counties, cities and towns across the nation.
The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition is a broad-based group consisting of motorized and nonmotorized recreation interests, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, elected officials and ordinary citizens. The coalition is working to end the Fee Demonstration Program and encourage better funding for public land management and more fiscal accountability by land management agencies.