By Larry Craig
The next time you visit your local public library, drive an interstate highway through the West or attend a city council meeting, imagine how frustrated and upset you'd be if you were charged a fee for the privilege of doing so. In spite of the tax dollars you already pay to support these entities, imagine if you were charged an extra "user fee" or "admission fee."
Managers might assure you that the fee will go toward more helpful signs on the road, more comfortable chairs at city hall or a refreshment stand in the library. These amenities might improve your experience while providing extra funding for these institutions. If, after a year or two of paying these fees, some of the promised services materialized and some didn't, you would rightfully feel used, confused or angry.
Rest assured: Highways, libraries and city halls won't be subject to fees like this in the foreseeable future. Across the nation, however, some of our public lands already are.
The authority to charge a recreation fee is provided to the agencies under the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, which is set to expire in December 2005, unless Congress votes another reauthorization. This program has been a demonstration in the truest meaning of this word by providing us all with insight into what we like, dislike and are willing to pay for when it comes to using our public lands.
What I have heard overwhelmingly is that people around the country are willing to pay for a service associated with actual use, but not simple access to our public lands. I agree with this and have no problem with charging users a recreation fee, or more accurately, an amenity fee for the maintenance or related costs of areas with a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management campground, a public-access boat ramp, garbage pickup or other such services. These are important services that require upkeep, and they are vital to the preservation of these areas.
But I do not agree with charging users a fee to hunt, fish, hike or otherwise use unimproved public lands.
Some fees that we encounter in everyday life are well-established and reasonable. We pay to see a movie or concert in a public place; we might pay a fee to enter a museum. Sometimes, we pay a toll to finance roads or bridges.
In each instance, we pay for a finished product something that has taken time and money to build or create, or that will require funding to maintain. That is why I cannot support the policy of charging people fees to access lands and resources that are already theirs, which certainly were not created or upgraded by the natural resource agencies, and which won't be improved or altered as a result of these fees.
In the case of a town or county that imposes a user fee for something like a library, the citizens can use the ballot box to resolve their concerns about administrators who overstep their responsibilities or the bounds of common sense. In the case of the land managers who work for federal agencies, there are no elections. That is why I am calling for recreation fee advisory committees in each state to review and advise where and what fees should be charged.
I am also concerned that during the six-year Recreation Fee Demonstration, we relieved the federal agencies from having to count these fees as part of their gross receipts, which are shared with the counties through programs like the Forest Service's 25 percent Payment to Counties.
Now that the demonstration is coming to an end and we are trying to determine if and how to provide permanent authority to the program, we must also look at how recreation affects the counties that host our public lands. When a hiker gets lost in the woods, it is the county's search and rescue team that is tasked with finding the hiker. Improved amenities will bring more recreation, and as a result, increased pressure on counties. I will demand that all fees collected from this and other programs continue to be shared with county and local governments.
I will continue to work with my colleagues and the administration to refine the recreation-fee program, so that if it is authorized for an additional nine to 10 years, users of our public lands will continue to enjoy and access their beauty in the way Mother Nature intended.
Larry Craig is a Republican senator from Idaho.
Writers on the Range is a syndicated service of High Country News, providing three opinion columns each week to more than 70 newspapers around the West. The service provides a range of opinions, to stir thought and discussion. To see all the current columns, and archives, visit HCNs Web site, www.hcn.org. For more information, contact editor Betsy Marston, email@example.com, 970-527-4898.