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Letter to the Editor from Lanie Johnson regarding Federal Recreation Fees

“Paying to Play” on Public Lands

Recreation fees for public lands are under close congressional scrutiny right now. Idaho, which is over 60% public land, would benefit greatly from repeal of the present law that authorizes fees. Both local residents and visitors would be relieved of burdensome fees. Fee repeal would also be of great benefit to Idaho’s tourism industry. There is no better time to contact your US Representatives and US Senators and ask them to support repeal of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. The bill in the Senate, Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act, (S.2438) is already co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo; it would be helpful if Sen. Larry Craig also signed on as a co-sponsor. No House bill has been introduced yet – your Representatives can be the ones to get the glory! Legislator contact information follows the press release below.

June 22, 2008 For immediate release

Federal Recreation Fees Under

Bipartisan Fire in Washington

Washington, DC - In a public hearing on Wednesday, June 18th, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, chaired by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), expressed serious concern about recreation fees that are being imposed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and other federal land management agencies.

The hearing was entitled “Paying to Play – Implementation of Fee Authority on Public Lands.” Chairman Grijalva set the tone in his opening statement when he said, “I firmly believe that the American public should not have to pay additional fees to have access to our world class system of parks, forests, refuges and public lands -- whether it be listening to a ranger program in a national park, hiking the wilderness, or enjoying a picnic in the woods in a national forest.”

Five invited witnesses presented evidence of powerful public opposition to recreation fees, lack of accountability for fee revenue, and efforts to exclude the public from fee proposals. The Subcommittee is also taking testimony from the general public by email until July 2nd. According to Grijalva, the Subcommittee has been “inundated” by messages from citizens calling on Congress to repeal the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). Fee authority has been governed by the FLREA since it replaced the Fee Demo program in December 2004.

Idaho State Representative George Eskridge testified about the harm that fees are doing to Idaho’s efforts to promote and develop tourism in the wake of job losses in the declining timber industry. “We have attempted to adjust to this loss of a major industry by promoting a more robust tourist industry that in part relies on the public taking advantage of the recreational opportunities on the federal lands in our state,” said Eskridge. “The improper implementation of fees for use of these facilities not only is resulting in opposition and dissatisfaction from our Idaho citizens, but I believe will result in a decrease in use of these facilities by the general public, and will result in a significant negative impact to the tourist industry in Idaho, not to mention in the nation in general.”

Western Slope No-Fee Coalition (WSNFC) President Kitty Benzar spoke about the increasing number of fee sites and the questionable legality of many fees. She took special aim at the Forest Service’s use of High Impact Recreation Areas, or HIRAs, which are being widely used by the Forest Service although they are not authorized in the law. Within a HIRA, a fee is required for all uses, even those specifically exempted by law from fees such as roadside parking and scenic overlooks.

Testifying as an ordinary citizen, California teacher and kayaker Peter Wiechers told the tale of his efforts to obtain information from the Sequoia National Forest that have been “thwarted at every turn.” In his judgment as a teacher, Wiechers said, “the Forest Service has failed their program.”

On the whole, the legislators’ questions were critical of claims by the public lands agencies that there is public support for fees, and that the fees being charged for access to large tracts of public land are within the scope of the law. Agency witnesses Interior Department Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett and Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey defended their fee programs, but faced tough questions from the Subcommittee.

Hearing co-chair Grace Napolitano (D-CA) observed that, when she was raising her family, they frequently visited public lands. “I doubt that I would have been able to afford them, with five children, if we’d had to pay an additional cost to travel into those areas,” she said.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR) expressed concern about the Forest Service’s accounting for fee revenue, which he says is “disappearing into the maw of the bureaucracy.” His staff has been unable to get an accounting of $350 million in Forest Service fee revenue. “The numbers just don’t add up properly,” he said.

Lois Capps (D-CA) told Rey that, despite his statements that visitors are only charged for amenities they actually use, she has heard from many constituents that the Los Padres National Forest requires them to pay fees for amenities that are far from the places they visit. “It would seem to me that with these HIRAs, the Forest Service is simply using them to get around the letter of the law,” Capps said.

William Sali (R-ID), noting that his state has had a tough time recovering from the loss of the timber industry, said that Idahoans are not unreasonable when they object to having to pay fees to picnic or hike in the same National Forests that “once supported their jobs, put money into their schools, and used to sustain their local economy.”

Jay Inslee (D-WA) said the National Forests in Washington state are “just falling apart” and wondered why, despite fee revenue, roads and trails in the backcountry are not being kept open and in good repair. He said that the Forests in his state are “a disaster from a recreational standpoint.”

Rob Bishop (R-UT) questioned why the agencies are spending fee revenues building new facilities when “we can’t maintain what we already have.”

Both Scarlett and Rey told the Subcommittee that there is ample public participation and that public input into fee decisions is actively sought by the agencies they oversee, but Wiechers disagreed.

“They didn’t even stay to hear my testimony,” he observed. “As soon as they were done speaking, they left. I don’t think they care at all what the public says, and they sure didn’t care to hear what I had to say. It was just rude.”

WSNFC President Benzar expressed satisfaction with the hearing. “The Subcommittee showed great interest in hearing about the kinds of abuses that are brought to my attention daily from all over the country,” she said. “I am optimistic that one or more members will act to end this failed experiment and introduce legislation to repeal the FLREA. Anyone who does that will be a hero in their home District.”

A bill to repeal FLREA is currently pending in the Senate with bipartisan sponsorship led by Max Baucus (D-MT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID). No House version has yet been introduced.

Video of the hearing and the written statements of all the witnesses are posted at http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/index.php?option=com_jcalpro&Itemid=54&extmode=view&extid=190

Information on how the public can submit comments for the hearing record until July 2 is at http://westernslopenofee.org/index2.php?display=yes&pageid=22

©2008 Western Slope No Fee Coalition

Contact your legislators in Washington DC (A fax is better than a letter these days because of the lengthy inspection process of mail. The only way to email the legislators is through their websites.)

Sen. Larry Craig, U.S. Senate

520 Hart Building

Washington, DC 20510-0001

202 224 2752 phone, 202 228 1067 fax

http://craig.senate.gov/contact.cfm

Sen. Mike Crapo, U.S. Senate

239 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510 -0001

202 224 6142 phone, 202 228 1375 fax

http://crapo.senate.gov/contact/contact.cfm

Rep. Bill Sali, U.S. House of Representatives

508 Cannon Building

Washington, DC 20515

202 225 6611 phone, 202 225 3029

http://sali.house.gov/zipauth.shtml

Rep. Mike Simpson, U.S. House of Representatives

1339 Longworth House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

202 225 5531 phone, 202 225 8216 fax

www.house.gov.simpson/emailme.shtml

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