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Tucson Weekly Forest Service Prime Evil

The U.S. Forest Service And A Cabal Of Big Business Interests Are Slowly Privatizing Our National Heritage. But You Can Stop Them.

By Sam Negri

MARCH 15, 1999:  THERE IS A little war going on throughout the country, and it's about to heat up. On one side of this war we have Congress and the agencies that govern our national recreation areas such as forests and parks. On the other side we have "users," people who hike, camp, fish, or those who simply want to be in a place that is quiet, scenic, refreshing and unlike daily life. This second group often consists of people who don't take anything tangible away from the national forests; they don't "use" anything, unless you consider using a drafty outhouse a major expression of greed, and, unlike timber companies and ranchers, they don't profit financially from their little excursions into the boonies.

These "users" have in the last two years been affected by an incongruous piece of legislation that went into effect in 1996 and which was extended another two years in 1998. The original bill was actually a rider tacked on to the 1996 Interior Appropriations Bill. A rider is a provision added to an important bill which absolutely has to get passed, such as an appropriations bill that provides money to pay the salaries of government workers across the nation.

The rider to the Interior Appropriations Bill established the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, an ideological serpent that surfaces in different skins in some 100 locations throughout the country. Around Santa Barbara, for example, where the program has been severely crippled by the locals, the Forest Service calls it the Adventure Pass--you buy an "Adventure Pass" to park and hike a trail or camp in various places that were previously free. Around Tucson, it's simply called a user fee.

In this area, the program first reared its head on Mount Lemmon when the Forest Service erected a tollbooth just below Molino Basin and, in September, 1997, began charging visitors $5 per vehicle if they intended to use any trails or picnic areas or campgrounds. An additional fee is imposed if you camp. Last summer, the fee demonstration program was extended--again by a rider--for another two years. And, earlier this month, the $5 user fee was hiked to $7.50 at some spots on the mountain (You pay $5 to get past the tollbooth, then another $2.50 to use the parking areas closest to certain trailheads).

Eventually, a tollbooth will be installed at Madera Canyon, and the size of the parking and camping areas will be doubled. Another tollbooth may be installed at Sabino Canyon, according to David Hodges, campaign organizer for Southwest Forest Alliance, which opposes the fees. Unless there is a massive public outcry against governmental mismanagement and double and triple taxation policies, "pay to play" will soon replace Help Prevent Forest Fires as the dominant mantra in our national forests.

Supporters of the fee demo program justify their position by noting that the Forest Service (and other land management agencies) does not get enough money out of the federal budget to adequately maintain the land it's charged with managing. Trails aren't being maintained, picnic tables, outhouses and campgrounds are deteriorating. The solution, they say, is to charge the public fees for using all of these facilities with the understanding that the money collected will stay in the forest district where it was collected. Evidently this is a lot easier than ending subsidies for the cattle and timber industries.

Underlying this "pay to play" idea is a basic philosophical shift, which was expressed this way by Michael Dombeck, chief of the Forest Service, in a 1997 speech:

"It baffles me that the Department of Agriculture [which includes the Forest Service] tracks the value of soybeans, corn, or wheat to the penny by the day, yet, rarely is recreation and tourism on federal lands understood as a revenue generator. Instead it has been perceived as an amenity--something extra that we are privileged to enjoy. Fortunately, that's beginning to change."

Those who oppose the imposition of fees for hiking and camping on federal lands are equally baffled. How did it happen that such a man could be made chief of the Forest Service? Is it not mind-boggling, they ask, that a man who should be a public advocate would be astonished by the notion that citizens would perceive the use of their national forests as an amenity, "something extra that we are privileged to enjoy?"

Among those offended by the imposition of these new fees--which will undoubtedly become permanent if the public doesn't shed its lethargic acquiescence--are Forest Service employees. A few have expressed their chagrin privately, and regret they cannot speak publicly because of the political damage they would suffer in their offices. The Forest Service, like most corporations, values its team players. However, even those Forest Service workers who consider the fees a wretched intrusion find themselves torn because they also see the new fees as a way to get money for good projects that have been eternally delayed for lack of money.

THE NERVE CENTER of this "pay for play" gouging of the American public is an inappropriate--to use a good Washington word--alliance between Dombeck and an organization called the American Recreation Coalition. The ARC membership includes Walt Disney Co., American Horse Association, American Bus Association, Coleman Co., Motorcycle Industry Council, National Ski Areas Association, Yamaha Motor Corporation and others. Exxon and the American Petroleum Council are associate members.

"Over a period of 20 years, ARC has become perhaps the most influential force affecting governmental recreational policy in this country," says Scott Silver of Bend, Oregon, who is executive director of Wild Wilderness, possibly the most active and outspoken critic of the fee demonstration program. "Through its Recreational Roundtable and Recreation Exchange, ARC continues to nurture its deep connections within the political system. ARC's goals are to ensure continued and increased access for its many sports members, and to promote a climate ripe for new and expanded opportunities for public/private partnerships between federal land management agencies and ARC's commercial development interests. In short, 'privatize, commercialize and motorize.' "

Clearly, in recent years Dombeck and others like him have attempted to turn the relationship between the Forest Service and the American people into a relationship between an entrepreneur and a customer. Francis Pandolfi, who was employed by ARC before he became Dombeck's chief of staff, made the point in a 1997 speech: "The next step is to use the recreation fee pilot to pull together a first-class business management plan. For the first time, we are selling a product."

When the Forest Service is dealing with a corporation, such as a mining or timber company, the kind of relationship Dombeck is describing is appropriate because the company will extract a product from public lands and use it to make a profit. It is singularly inappropriate when applied to individuals who go off to the woods to hike or camp or fish or sit around and watch the red leaves drop from a bigtooth maple.

There are some problems with this idea of recreation as product. Since the product is on public land used by members of the public, it sounds like the land owners are being charged to use what they already own. And since the land owners pay an annual fee (called taxes) and a portion of that fee presumably is allocated to take care of their land, the program sounds illogical if not dauntingly arrogant.

"The American people already own these lands, and should have free and open access to them," says Melanie L. Griffin, director of the Sierra Club's Land Protection Program. "We pay taxes every April 15 to support the professional management of these public lands. Rather than appropriate sufficient funding for public land protection and management, the Congress consistently chooses to subsidize extractive industrial uses of our lands, like mining, grazing and logging. It does not make economic or environmental sense to charge fees for low-impact recreational activities while subsidizing such highly destructive industries. Families should not have to pick up an additional tab for industry every time they enter a national forest."

But Dombeck doesn't see it that way because he's looked at the numbers and they tell a mind-numbing story. There are a lot of bucks to be made out there as long as the sheep don't bleat too loudly. Addressing ski industry executives in that 1997 speech, Dombeck said:

"Both of our businesses have undergone change in the last few years...For the Forest Service, change has included the decline of timber harvesting and the explosion of recreation on public lands. The growth of recreation represents one of the major changes in public use and public expectations for the national forests and grasslands.

"In 1980, 560 million recreational visits were made to national forests. By 1996, that figure grew to 860 million. By the year 2,000 it may exceed 1 billion. With the leadership of people like Lyle Laverty, the former director of Forest Service Recreation who is now Rocky Mountain Regional Forester, the Forest Service has become the world's largest supplier of outdoor recreation. Annually, over 800 million visits on national forests and grasslands represent almost 50 percent of all recreation visits to the nation's public lands."

IN THE PAST, the Forest Service maintained campgrounds and trails for this horde of visitors by using tax money appropriated to it by Congress. In other words, there was a time when one of your rewards for being a good little taxpayer was a chance to go up Mount Lemmon and disappear into the woods for a few hours. And you could leave your wallet at home.

However, in the first half of the 1980s, budget cutbacks forced the Forest Service to close many campgrounds and ignore tasks like trail maintenance. By 1987, this problem was remedied by a program that allowed private concessionaires to manage campgrounds. So, what's wrong with this picture? Congress reduced the amount of money the Forest Service could spend to fulfill the "service" in its name, and ordinary hikers and campers--who traditionally have not had an enormous impact on Washington thinking--had something taken away from them. For this group, taxes would increase and services would decrease.

This unfortunate circumstance was remedied by allowing private companies to take over the campgrounds and charge high fees. You can see how nicely this benefits hikers by looking at Sedona. There are places along the narrow road through Oak Creek Canyon where trailheads can only be reached from campgrounds, and you can only park in the campground by paying a $12 fee.

Some members of Congress, Silver said, "created a deliberate maintenance crisis on federally managed recreation lands..." to facilitate "the rescue of a decaying public system by private investors and corporate sponsors." Silver calls this tilt toward privatization in national forests "wreckreceation."

There appears little doubt that the fee demonstration program has become a public relations disaster for the Forest Service, though you'd never get that impression in Arizona. Last October, 45-year-old auto mechanic Larry Auxter climbed Mount Shasta in northern California. When he got to the top of the mountain he encountered a forest ranger who cited him for making the hike without buying a $15 permit. Auxter, who happens also to be a Mount Shasta planning commissioner, refused to pay the fine. In January, Susan Walding, the Forest Service's lawyer, sent a letter to the U.S. District Court judge who was to hear the case and said "the government is requesting dismissal in the interest of justice." Walding's letter does not go on to explain what she could possibly have been talking about.

Just as Auxter's case was dropped, 50-year-old Steve Ankrum of Bend, Oregon, another Mount Shasta climber who had been cited last July, received a call from the Forest Service saying his charges, too, had been dropped. The Forest Service provided no explanation.

In late December, in proceedings before a federal magistrate in Los Angeles, a rationale for these actions was--almost by coincidence--entered into the record by Judge Rosalyn M. Chapman. In that case, a demonstrator named Robert W. Bartsch parked his car in an area where the Forest Service required an Adventure Pass. Bartsch didn't buy the pass because he wasn't using the forest for recreation. He walked across the road from the Forest Service headquarters and began distributing flyers opposing the fee demonstration program. The Forest Service gave him two tickets, one for parking in a lot without buying an Adventure Pass, and a second for being in the forest without having the same pass.

Bartsch refused to pay the fines and a court date was set for December 30. Bartsch told the judge, who was not familiar with the fee demonstration program (or Adventure Pass), that "it is a pilot program which Congress has just recently extended to the year 2004 to determine the willingness of the public to comply with the program." Joseph H. Johns, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to prosecute the case, did not question that definition, and instead suggested that the charges be dismissed. It was generally agreed that Bartsch was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he was cited for not having an Adventure Pass.

Referring to the Forest Service lawyer, the judge told Bartsch, "I'm sure the government understands that you have a First Amendment right to express your views, and you do not need a pass to do that." And, she added, "Mr. Johns is advised to inform his office generally of that fact so that if you are cited again for the same offense, unless, of course that pass becomes mandatory, rather than discretionary, at some point, then the charges will be dismissed. If that fee and pass become mandatory, then, of course, we may have a different issue."

There seemed little doubt that the judge was saying you can decide to pay or not pay the Forest Service fee. After all, that's how Congress will figure out whether anyone supports the idea, and any reactions may influence the fate of a bill, introduced last summer by Democrat Lois Capps and Republican Mary Bono, members of Congress from California, which would end the Forest Service's participation in the program. That bill died at the conclusion of the last Congressional session, but was recently reintroduced in this session, with the addition of three more House sponsors--Republican Merrill Cook of Utah, Democrat Peter De Fazio of Oregon and Republican Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri.

The government's decision to not prosecute violators seems to confirm that the fee demonstration program is essentially a toothless tiger which the public can eradicate. But this idea has not yet hit home in Arizona.

SILVER AND A group of other environmental activists met in mid-February with various congressional aides to discuss the future of the fee demonstration program, and as a result he advises anyone opposed to the program to start writing Washington immediately.

"The congressional aides have not heard from the people on this issue," Silver said. "The only thing they're hearing is the Forest Service saying that people like the fee demonstration program." There is some irony in this. The Forest Service's optimism is based on statistics of user acceptance compiled by the American Recreation Coalition, and even those statistics, broken down regionally, show at best an anemic degree of public acceptance.

As of mid-February, some 75 environmental organizations had signed on to the campaign against the fee demonstration program, and that number is expected to double by the end of this month. There is some urgency, Silver said, because in meetings with officials at the Office of Management and Budget, the environmental groups were told that the Clinton Administration is firmly committed to making the forest fees permanent. In fact, proceeds from the program are being calculated in preparation of the year 2000 federal budget.

Clearly, it's essential that people let the government know soon that they're opposed to this program. In some parts of the country, this is already happening--but not in Arizona.

In California, groups from Big Sur south to San Diego have organized to vociferously fight the program, and newspapers have aggressively reported on the issue and taken editorial positions. Around Santa Barbara, residents went to the businesses that were selling the Forest Service's "Adventure Pass" and convinced them that many of their potential customers saw this program as a very bad idea, adding a suggestion that customers might well go buy their Coleman fuel and camou outfits at those businesses that had refused to participate in the Adventure Pass program. This thinly veiled threat worked--all five outlets in the Santa Ynez Valley that were selling the passes dropped them. The program, while by no means dead, is on life support in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara. In all, activists persuaded 33 vendors to stop selling the Adventure Pass in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Frazier Park and Ojai.

BUT ARIZONA IS another story. Here you find a newspaper story in October where a reporter unblinkingly writes that the Forest Service is waiving the $5 Mount Lemmon fee for one day "to thank the public for participating in the fee program." The story quotes District Ranger Dean McAlister as saying, "The program has been a huge success, thanks to the public, who [sic] is willing to give this test of user fees a try." That statement was contradicted several months later, when a February 15 story in The Arizona Daily Star quoted Mount Lemmon residents saying that the absence of snow and the imposition of user fees on the mountain was having a devastating economic impact on Summerhaven. And yet the public continues to shy from a fight over this issue.

David Hodges thinks this picture may change once a tollbooth is erected in Sabino Canyon.

"I think we'll see more screaming and opposition if they try to implement the fees at Sabino Canyon," Hodges says. "There will be a lot more people impacted by it, and the greater number of those will be wealthy, well-educated people."

While activists in California, Oregon and Washington were optimistic about eventually killing the fee demonstration program, Hodges's instinct tells him that the fees not only are here to stay, but will be drastically extended to some of the most remote spots in the national forests. Once people get used to paying for the amenities they previously used for free, the American Recreation Coalition will have made its point: Outdoor recreation is a wonderful, marketable "product" and people will pay rather than fight.

They may be right. When the Forest Service erected its $100,000 tollbooth at Molino Basin, there was a brief flurry of indignation. Before long, however, the public seemed to lose interest.

"People feel like, 'What's the use?' " Hodges says. "People are used to having things done to them. There's very little dissent in this country."

That appears an accurate description of Tucson and users of the Coronado National Forest. Meanwhile, just 600 miles or so to the west, the residents around the Los Padres National Forest are proving that organized opposition can work.

More information and ideas on ways to fight the Fee Demonstration Program can be found at Scott Silver's home page: http://www.wildwilderness.org/.

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