On Saturday, June 15, environmental activists, outdoors enthusiasts and others will gather on many federal public lands around the country, but not to hike or picnic. They’ll be rallying to end the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, widely known as Fee Demo, that requires citizens to buy passes in order to recreate on many public lands.
Legally, one no longer can freely park to access trailheads around Mt. Hood in Oregon, the Angeles Crest highway in Southern California or areas in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any National Forest land in many states where one can play without paying.
Federal law traditionally precluded federal land agencies from charging us simply to access undeveloped public lands. But in 1996, Congress temporarily lifted those restrictions in an attempt to fund much land management through user fees - a precedent that challenges the very idea of these lands as public and opens doors to widespread commercialization.
Don’t confuse these public lands with our relatively small 75 million-acre National Park system and their developed facilities, or some campgrounds and marinas to which we’ve paid admission for decades. The lands in question largely are undeveloped beyond the roadside. They include over 600 million acres (about six times the size of California) managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers.
Amid the privatization frenzy of the 1990s Congress slashed much funding for these agencies (while maintaining subsidies for extractive industries). For example, Forest Service recreation budgets fell by more than a third between 1994 and 1999.
Into this manufactured “crisis” stepped the American Recreation Coalition, a consortium of major corporations and their front groups that profit from motorized and commercialized recreation. Claiming user fees could compensate for funding shortfalls, the ARC lobbied for lifting restrictions on commercial activity on public land and promoted “public/private partnerships.”
Fee Demo was buried in the 1996 appropriations bill, where it was passed into law with almost no public awareness. Each of the four land agencies was authorized to charge access fees on up to 100 unspecified sites -- a limitation those agencies openly flouted. But last year Congress lifted the cap and Washington's Wenatchee National Forest alone now charges fees at more than 100 trailheads.
Originally a two-year test, Fee Demo has been extended for several years. Just this week, Senate Bill 2607--which attempts to make these fees permanent was introduced and placed on a fast-track schedule—no doubt to avoid public scrutiny.
This presents a serious new threat. Developers are unlikely to launch expensive building projects under temporary status, but if protections from corporate exploitation are removed permanently, the recreation industry will seek to expand the range of developments rapidly. Why just admire, smell or feel giant redwoods when you can play miniature golf through their trunks?
An exaggeration? Let’s hope. But inevitably, public lands managers’ priorities will shift from protecting healthy ecosystems to ensuring their agencies' survival through fee collection. And some of them need no urging. In 1999, Francis Pandolfi, then the Chief Operating officer of the Forest Service (and former CEO of Times Mirror Magazines), already was exhorting his agency to “fully explore our gold mine of recreational opportunities…as if (they) were consumer product brands.”
The Army Corps of Engineers unabashedly says of corporate/public partnerships,“The intent is to encourage private development of public recreation facilities such as: marinas, hotel/motel/restaurant complexes, conference centers, RV camping areas, golf courses, theme parks, and entertainment areas with shops, etc.”
Of further concern, fee promoters say user fees supplement federal funds, but the facts show appropriated funds consistently cut as fee revenues spread--almost to the dollar. And while Forest Service publicity claims that 80 percent of fees go right back to the land, documentation from southern California’s National Forests show that nearly half the money actually goes to concessionaires, administration and enforcement. And even under threats of $100 fines, barely half the public pays these illegitimate fees, which grossed a paltry $36 million for the Forest Service in 2000.
To most visitors, the current fees are small, but they are demonstrably exclusive (and you can bet on them rising if made permanent). A Forest Service/University of Massachusetts study revealed that 23 percent of respondents with incomes under $30,000 had reduced or eliminated their visits to fee sites.
Fortunately, awareness is growing. Four state legislatures have passed resolutions opposing Fee Demo, conscious non-compliance is widespread and several groups have arisen expressly to fight public lands corporatization. Fee Demo promoters will try to convince us that it’s inconvenience that bothers people and introduce yearly passes across all fee sites as a solution. Don’t buy it--literally.
Conserving our public lands for human enjoyment and vital wildlife habitat is a value fundamentally at odds with exploiting the land for profit. We should demand that Congress put an end to Fee Demo and restore the funding stripped from general appropriations.
Tomorrow’s protests come at a critical time; if we don’t halt Fee Demo now, there will be scarce chance of reclaiming our public commons. After years of paying this user tax, many Americans will forget that public lands are for us all--a birthright to protect, not a commodity for sale to those who can afford it.
Jeff Milchen is the director of ReclaimDemocracy.org,
a non-profit organization working to revoke illegitimate corporate power over
civic society. A more detailed primer with additional resources on this topic
is available on request. See WildWilderness.org
for listings on actions near you.