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Fee Legislation and the Disneyfication Threat

After years of meandering in the currents, the fee-demo issue has been swept
into fast-moving water. In recent months three congressional hearings have
been held, including both oversight and legislative. Two radically different
bills are currently in play, with one bill having passed the full Senate
just days ago. On top of all of this, the biggest promoters of recreation
user fees --the American Recreation Coalition-- has just publicly floated a
proposal for the implementing of a greatly expanded, explicitly
privatization-oriented, Phase Two "demonstration" program. ARC's latest
proposal is one I've been tracking for several years and though lacking in
Congressional support it has support at the very highest levels in the Bush
Administration.
News From Scott Silver, of Wild Wilderness


--(This is a longer that usual and a more vital than usual update)--

After years of meandering in the currents, the fee-demo issue has been swept
into fast-moving water. In recent months three congressional hearings have
been held, including both oversight and legislative. Two radically different
bills are currently in play, with one bill having passed the full Senate
just days ago. On top of all of this, the biggest promoters of recreation
user fees --the American Recreation Coalition-- has just publicly floated a
proposal for the implementing of a greatly expanded, explicitly
privatization-oriented, Phase Two "demonstration" program. ARC's latest
proposal is one I've been tracking for several years and though lacking in
Congressional support it has support at the very highest levels in the Bush
Administration.

With so much now happening, and with the fee-demo waters becoming so rough
and wild, it's important that opponents of this program stay focused upon
the task we've set. Killing fee-demo for all agencies except the National
Park Service remains, task #1. Preventing the Corporate Takeover of Nature
and the Disneyfication of Nature is and remains, task #1a.

Pasted below are TWO articles of enormous importance. The first is a
legislative update from the very reliable, and politically-perceptive
source, "Environment & Energy Daily". The second is titled "Senate Puts
Nail in Fee Demo Coffin", but that coffin nail is not the reason I am
sharing this. The article speaks of the Maroon Bells in Colorado, a
recreation site where the USFS has recently spent millions of tax dollars
building entirely inappropriate infrastructure it can not afford to
maintain. In order to provide for the upkeep of this infrastructure, the
USFS is utterly determined to privatize the area using whatever tools it can
find in it's toolbox. Fee-Demo is not the only privatization tool in the box
and killing fee-demo will not be enough so long as the USFS is committed to
managing the public lands as if they were Disneylands. With all the
attention being focused upon fee-demo, I'd like to remind folks that we're
going to be floating through some very dangerous water UNTIL we effectively
negotiate that Disneyfication threat. Killing fee-demo alone will not be
enough to get us into calmer waters.

Scott

------ begin quoted -------

5/21/04
Senate passes Park Service fee collection bill
Dan Berman, Environment & Energy Daily reporter

The Senate late Wednesday passed legislation that would permanently allow
the National Park Service to charge entrance fees over the objection of the
Bush administration, which favors legislation in the House that would extend
that authority to other agencies.

S. 1107 was one of 21 public lands and water resources bills the Senate
approved by unanimous consent over the past two days. The bill, sponsored by
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), would allow fee collection programs for the
Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to
expire at the end of 2005.

Congress established the controversial recreational fee demonstration
program in a 1996 spending bill as a three-year experiment, but it has been
reauthorized several times, most recently as a rider in the FY '04 Interior
appropriations bill. Fee demo is now authorized through Jan. 1, 2006. The
program allows the agencies to charge fees for recreational activities like
camping and recreational vehicle access in order to raise money not tied to
the yearly whims of Congress.

The program has been a cash cow for Interior and the Forest Service.
Interior expects to collect $138 million from the fee demo in FY '05, mostly
from the Park Service, while the Forest Service expects to collect $46
million, according to administration budget requests. The majority of
funding stays in the area where it is collected and is used for maintenance
projects and visitor improvements.

"My legislation provides a remedy to address the much needed funding to
protect our nation's treasures, and provides resources for badly needed
improvement projects and ensures an enhanced experience for all visitors,"
Thomas said in a statement.

Fee demo has been controversial from its outset, with opponents charging the
program has been haphazardly and unfairly implemented. They claim it is
wrong for the federal government to collect user fees for access to public
lands already funded with taxpayer dollars.

Those opponents, however, have supported Thomas' bill because it singles out
the Park Service, which has traditionally charged entrance fees and has a
better record than the other agencies.

"We appreciate the Senate recognizing the difference between the national
parks and the other agencies," said Robert Funkhouser, president of the
Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. "National parks have a higher level of
service, history of charging fees and a higher level of infrastructure. Fees
are more appropriate in the parks than other agencies."

The fate of fee collection in the House remains murky. The administration
has thrown its support behind a bill currently under consideration in the
House Resources Committee that would establish permanent fee collection
authority for NPS, FWS, BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest
Service. H.R. 3283, by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), would establish three fee
levels -- basic, expanded and special -- as well as authorize an "America
the Beautiful Pass," which would allow the user to access any basic fee area
nationwide, across all participating agencies.

The fees are necessary because of the increases in recreation on public
lands over the past two decades, Forest Service Deputy Chief Tom Thompson
told a House panel earlier this month. Recreation demand has increased by 65
percent on BLM lands and 80 percent on FWS wildlife refuges since 1985.
"This increase in visitation means an increase in visitor demand for
adequate visitor facilities and services," Thompson said (E&E Daily, May 7).

Regula has said that S. 1107 is "better than nothing," but would prefer to
see his bill incorporating all the agencies move forward. And a House GOP
aide noted fee demo does not expire until the end of 2005, meaning there is
time to work on a bill in the 109th Congress if the House does not pass a
bill this year. The Resources Committee will continue to address the issue
via Regula's bill, not S. 1107.

But Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, said Wednesday's
action shows what type of bill the Senate is looking for. "This certainly
sets the tone. The Senate has sent a strong message to the House what
legislation they're interested in passing," Silver said. "Is is pretty clear
the sympathy of the Senate is that the fee demonstration program is fairly
well proven for the National Park Service and that major problems remain for
the other agencies."

---------- SECOND ARTICLE BEGIN ------------

 http://www.aspentimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040521/NEWS/105210010

Senate puts nail in fee demo coffin

Scott Condon
May 21, 2004


The U.S. Forest Service's ability to charge special fees at 105 sites around
the country, including the Maroon Bells, suffered a blow in the U.S. Senate
Wednesday night.

Through unanimous consent on the Senate floor, a bill was passed that would
reauthorize the National Recreation Fee Demonstration Program for the
National Park Service but allow it to expire on Dec. 31, 2005, for the
Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The Senate has clearly drawn the line with parks," said Robert Funkhouser,
a founder of the Norwood, Colo.-based Western Slope No Fee Coalition.
Funkhouser has testified in Congress on multiple occasions to kill the
program.

The House is considering a bill that is the polar opposite of what the
Senate passed. The House bill, which hasn't yet been voted on, would grant
permanent authorization for the fee demo program for all agencies.

Forest Service officials meeting in Aspen for a symposium on wilderness
issues said Thursday they aren't convinced the agency's ability to charge a
fee will be killed.

Steve Sherwood, recreation, heritage and wilderness resources director for
the region that includes Colorado, said the Senate could still consider a
bill specifically on a fee demo program for the Forest Service.

Bells out for bid?

Even if the agency's ability to apply the fee demo program is stripped,
there are other tools the Forest Service could apply at places like the
Maroon Bells to raise funds for management, Sherwood said.

One of those tools is implementation of the Granger-Thye Act, which has been
in place since 1950. Under that act, the Forest Service could put operations
of the Maroon Bells facilities out for bid to the private sector, Sherwood
said.

The Forest Service could dictate in its prospectus what operations the
concessionaire would be required to undertake - maintenance and
interpretative programs, for example. The Granger-Thye Act has a provision
that allows some of the funds that a concessionaire would normally pay to
the U.S. Treasury for the management contract to be withheld and used for
improvements at a site like the Maroon Bells, Sherwood said.

Privatization opposed

Ironically, privatization of a site like the Bells is exactly what no-fee
advocates hoped to avoid by killing the fee demonstration project.

The Western Slope No Fee Coalition and its ally, Wild Wilderness, contend
that the fee demonstration program is edging the Forest Service closer to
farming out operations of popular projects to the private sector. The
ability to charge a fee for use of public lands is the first step toward
privatization, they claim.

Sherwood disputed their outlook. "It's just the opposite," he said. "Fees
allow us to hire people to directly manage the site."

As the program currently exists, the Forest Service charges $10 for private
vehicles to drive to Maroon Lake at certain times of the day. In addition,
it collects a share of the $5.50 bus fare that the Roaring Fork Transit
Authority charges for Bells trips.

Fees raised $123,000 for the Forest Service last year. All the money was
used for operations and maintenance of the facilities there. Sherwood said
the program enables the Forest Service to hire seasonal employees to
undertake the work itself.

If the program expires starting in summer 2006, the agency won't have the
funds in its budget to absorb operations and maintenance of the Bells,
according to Sherwood and other Forest Service officials. Options would
include cutting back services as well as farming out management through the
Granger-Thye Act.

In that way, Sherwood said, the privatization that no-fee advocates hope to
avoid would become a reality.

Debate far from over

Funkhouser said he had doubts that a concessionaire could be hired to
operate a site like the Maroon Bells facilities. He said a federal law, the
Land and Water Conservation Act, places specific limits on the types of
sites where a fee can be charged - unlike the National Recreation Fee
Demonstration Program.

But Diane Hitchings, special use program manager for the Forest Service's
regional office in Lakewood, Colo., confirmed that Granger-Thye could be
applied at the Bells. "That is a tool we could use."

Funkhouser was unwilling to concede the point until he was able to do more
research. If the act can be applied to collect a fee, Funkhouser said he
believes it is the wrong way for the Forest Service to address its alleged
budget issues. The agency needs to do a better job of getting the funds it
has allocated to duties like maintainenance at the Maroon Bells facilities,
he said. Other fee foes want Congress to devote more funds to the Forest
Service and other public lands management agencies.

The fate of the fee demonstration project is far from over. If the U.S.
House passes a bill that reauthorizes the program for all agencies, a
conference committee will have to wrangle over the vast differences between
the House and Senate versions.

Scott Condon's e-mail address is  scondon@aspentimes.com.

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Scott Silver
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Ave.
Bend, OR 97701

phone: 541-385-5261
e-mail:  ssilver@wildwilderness.org
Internet:  http://www.wildwilderness.org

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