Writing a long lead column on current events is fraught with danger. That said, I'm going to stick my neck out and write about the Recreation Fee Demonstration Bill and why I support it. Created in 1966, the Fee Demo program generated $175.7 million in fiscal 2002, up from $172.8 million collected in 2001. Of the monies collected, 80 percent was used for improvements within the areas in which they were collected.
The House Resources Committee passed HR 3283 in the fall of 2004. If the House and Senate fail to address the issue before January 3, 2005, the whole process to pass Fee Demo legislation starts all over in the next session of congress. According to my sources, the consensus is that the bill will be passed next year.
One of my biggest concerns is that 'wheelers of all persuasions have sided with environmentalists on this issue. These are groups that have fought each other over road closures, trail access and so on. Yet they have joined hands and sit around the camp fire singing Kumbaya when it comes to fighting Fee Demo.
Mass protests have challenged the $5 per vehicle fee ($15 for an annual pass) to access popular USFS sites. The key point in fighting the Fee Demo program has always referenced the fact that these are taxpayer-owned public lands and a fee amounts to double taxation. If you buy that logic, why do you put coins in a meter to pay for a parking space on a public street paid for with taxpayer dollars? Or why not run the toll gate at Yellowstone instead of paying a National Park admission fee?
Just for drill, I've asked some of the Fee Demo protesters what tax bracket they were in and a lot of them admitted to paying no income taxes! So, why not carry the second page of your 1040 indicating that you paid taxes and show it to the ranger for free admission in Fee Demo areas? Golden Age Passport holders get free admission to NPS sites as well as 50 percent discounts on USFS, BLM and FWS facilities. Interestingly enough, these discounts and free admissions extend to the passengers of the signee! By the way, the Golden Age Passport is not valid in Fee Demo areas.
Critics of the Fee Demo program claim that there is a giant conspiracy by corporate America to take over public lands for private profits. They point to fees being charged for USFS campsites and collected by camp hosts employed by companies with government contracts. Paid camp hosts have replaced part-time USFS employees and volunteers because nobody else wanted to do the job! By the way, if you want to hear some hair-raising stories about campers, spend an hour with a camp host.
It's beyond my comprehension as to why a 4x4 owner would protest a $5 fee that would leave $4 on the ground to build vault toilets, improve trail head parking areas, improved signage and so on.
Instead of trail-blocking protests, I would rather see 'wheelers of all stripes sitting down with USFS property managers in their area and coming to a consensus as to what the 80 percent of the fees should be used for. Coming to the table puts you one up on the tree-huggers who will continue to protest and lose out on input.
In my first column last year, I pointed out that the population of the U.S. has almost doubled in the past 45 years. The fact that there are more 'wheelers on fewer trails has resulted in impacts that somebody has to pay for. Fee Demo is one way to spread the costs to those that actually use the public properties.
Quite frankly, I'm looking forward to having to pay $5 to access a Fee Demo area knowing that I won't have to put up with cheap jeepers who can't afford the price of admission to a Fee Demo area, let alone a decent muffler!