Place- Based Legislation: Should the Taxpayer Pay for Your Impacts?

Sometimes the idea of users paying for what they expect from the national forests (in terms of recreation) is simply incendiary. I, frankly, don’t really understand why, since it is not so for state parks or national parks. Here is an editorial from the Durange Herald (Durango, home of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition) that takes a more reasoned view (IMHO) concerning the idea of charging for various services when people climb certain fourteeners in Colorado.

Here’s a quote from the editorial:

There is, however, another reason serious hikers might want to consider footing some of the bill: Respect. The biggest non-tax contributors to the Forest Service budget are extractive users, who do pay extra – although, in many cases, probably not enough. With relatively low fees, recreationists could buy some clout. That is an investment worth considering.

In contrast, an article in the LA Times touches on some of the same issues (recreation impact) and suggests a solution- place based legislation- to make the San Gabriels a wilderness. Not sure exactly how this would translate into more funding to protect from recreationist damage- except that it would clearly come from the national taxpayer. Would it be simpler and more direct to simply charge the recreation users, as in the Fourteener example?

The Durango Herald editorial has an amazing quote from Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition in Durango, as she told The Associated Press,

“The Forest Service didn’t create the mountains, and they have no right to charge access to them

Based on this same principle the Forest Service couldn’t charge for oil and gas, or coal, or timber. LIke I said, I really don’t understand why some folks think recreation users should make the general taxpayer pay for their use of the federal lands. Can someone enlighten me?

6 thoughts on “Place- Based Legislation: Should the Taxpayer Pay for Your Impacts?”

  1. As with many issues, it depends how you frame things. If you think of recreation as an economic good that is produced through the managerial efforts of the Forest Service, then it makes some sense to treat the receipt as a price-able transaction.

    On the other hand, if you view recreation as heritage, as a birthright, and as a social good through which our nation is made stronger (in the same way that perhaps national security can be thought), then it is somewhat of an affront to sell it only to those who pay.

    As Richard Louv and many others have long argued, reducing the barriers to participation in the outdoors is one of the best ways to building appreciation and political support for conservation.

    The question of how to establish a stable foundation of funding for recreation and wilderness management, like much environmental protection, is a much more intractable question. Where there is not an industry to tax, such as is the case with air and water pollution, then restoration and protection activities may need direct funding from government. It is a duty that the Forest Service was originally charged with. If the National Forests are thought of as national treasures, then we have a responsibility to good stewards of the gift left us by previous generations.

  2. Sharon,

    I’m not exactly sure of the connection to place-based legislation here. But I will say that if enacted more broadly, individual laws governing individual national forests present a number of interesting budget and finance questions.

    It’s clear that most of these place-based initiatives are searching for a more predictable stream of funding than provided by the annual appropriations process; hence all the interest in stewardship contracting.

    One might go out on a limb and suggest that once stewardship contracting fails to pay for all the bills and needs on these forests, there will be renewed interest in recreation fees that stay on a particular unit. If we go down that road, hopefully recreation fees can be more fine-tuned in the future so that my dollars don’t go into some industrial recreation pit with little oversight and direction.

    • Martin,
      I was thinking that Wilderness is a variety of place-based legislation.
      Do you have an example of an “industrial recreation pit?”

  3. USFS recreation fees have increased some, but mainly for developed recreation. Charging a fee for someone to walk in the woods probably won’t happen, but charging a fee for some one to park a vehicle to go rafting is occurring. There is a fee for applying for float permits on wilderness rivers. I went to Mono Lake last Fall and the FS charged for parking at the nature trail down by the Lake. This seemes to work in areas with high recreation use, but where I live in a rural area folks camp in dispersed sites and shy away from developed fee campgrounds which are often close to empty.

  4. I have to say that as much as environmental groups advocate against private companies using forest resources without sufficient compensation it is remarkable that so many are opposed to making recreational users pay a user fee. It seems hypocritical to me. I see no rational distinction between the user fees charged by the National Park Service to visit parks or monuments and the Forest Service charging its visitors. In fact, I think the Park service grossly undercharges for access to the Parks. I think that the only real explanation for environmental groups’ opposition to user fees is that they simply don’t want to pay them. After all, everyone likes free.

  5. There are several reasons to be wary of increased application of recreation fees, among them having natural resource managers chasing fee dollars rather than dealing with people and Nature more generally in land and resource management. Here is a little bit of congressional testimony on general access fees that I captured as part of a 2008 Forest Policy-Practice post on Pay to Play:

    In both my government and nonprofit roles, I have watched and participated in the “recreation fees” debate for many years. I see no problem with special use fees for campgrounds, picnic areas, and boat launch sites, in part because these are long standing traditions and use fees are low. I see no problem with entrance fee collection for some of our outstanding National Parks to help welcome and orient visitors, fund interpretation and upkeep of needed trails, bridges, roads, to fund law enforcement activities, and more.

    But I am steadfastly against general access recreation fees as have recently surfaced in our national forests. Here is why: First, as owners of the national forests, people ought not to be charged to access their land.

    Second, in our culture we are bombarded throughout their lives with markets and marketing. We have commercialized almost everything. People desperately need space for reflection and re-creation far apart from the maddening drone that symbolizes over-commercialization of everything. Public lands provide a perfect backdrop to provide such far-from-commercial-culture experience. For many years they provided this backdrop. Unfortunately, and particularly in the National Forests, public land managers are busily, even gleefully turning the national forests into theme park amusements. This is tragic.

    Third, fees that are kept within bureaucracies distort incentives and distract public servants from important conservation and preservation concerns. There continues to be far too much focus on marketing and outright money-grubbing among US Forest Service managers and staff these days. This too is tragic.

    Providing citizens free access to their lands has other spin-off benefits. If we can find means to encourage citizens to seek “back to Nature” experiences we might find a useful counterbalance to the ever-more-individual, ever-more-frenzied, pace of our gadget filled TV/computer culture that is driving our citizens, our young people in particular, away from both community and Nature.

    It appears to me that at minimum the cumbersome nature of fee collection — likely the whole idea of fees — drives many away from our national forests at a time when we are seeing fewer and fewer children taking interest in Nature apart from TV feeds.


Leave a Comment