No one thinks that the use of highly developed or specialized facilities on federal lands should be free. But because our National Forests and BLM lands are a national heritage and birthright that provide important benefits to all Americans, we should be able to enjoy general access to them, as well as the use of minimal facilities that protect resources, health and safety, in return for the taxpayer funding that we provide to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Finding the right balance between what should be funded by everyone and what should be paid for by users is not easy. Provided here are the general principles that we think federal fee legislation should adhere to. We have also provided, at our website, model language for discussion that follows these principles. Going forward we will be promoting these principles to Congress as a framework for future legislation to replace FLREA with a law that will be successful with both the agencies and the public far into the future.
From the beginning of our country until 1996, with the exception of National Park entrance fees, general recreation fees on federally managed public lands were virtually unknown. In 1996, under pressure from commercial recreation interests, Fee Demo was enacted. It was an anything-goes experiment that allowed fees everywhere, for everything. Fee Demo was intended to discover what fees would be accepted by the public, and what fees would not, on lands other than National Parks, such as National Forests and BLM lands.
What were mostly acceptable were fees to use developed or specialized facilities.
What were strenuously opposed were fees for general access.
The 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) represented an attempt by Congress to apply what had been learned under Fee Demo to assure fee-free general access to National Forests and BLM lands, while providing the land management agencies with the authority to charge, collect and retain the types of fees that had proven acceptable to the public.
But by the time FLREA was enacted the agencies had become accustomed to being able to charge fees for anything, anywhere, and they resisted the new restrictions imposed by Congress. The Forest Service and BLM continued to charge fees that had been shown under Fee Demo to be unacceptable and which FLREA prohibited. Time has shown that the restrictive language included in FLREA by Congress was insufficiently tightly written to prevent agency abuse.
FLREA is set to expire on September 30, 2016. But Congress is expected to act in 2015 to take up legislation to replace FLREA. That new legislation must place specific limits upon the fees agencies can charge. It must do so clearly and without ambiguity.
What follows are principles, based upon nearly 20 years of experience gained since the passage of Fee Demo, that should govern federal recreation fees. If new legislation follows these principles the agencies will have adequate latitude to charge and retain reasonable fees, but will have to abide by clearly defined limitations that will protect the public’s right to general access onto lands that we all own in common.
The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition has drafted model fee legislation that comports with these principles and which amplifies, clarifies and defines terms and concepts presented in them. We offer this model as a ready-to-go bill or as a starting point for the creation of de novo legislation that uses different language to accomplish the same goals. A bill that adheres to these principles should receive broad public support and will well serve the interests of both the recreating public and the managers of our public lands whose job it is to provide for recreational access.”