Southern Sierran USFS to raise entry fees for National Parks

Thursday, September 1, 2005
Andrea Leigh

'If it were up to me, the entire forest would be free,' an Angeles National Forest administrator said. 'But we don't live in Wyoming. We live on the edge of a large urban center where 1,000 people at a time take a walk in the woods.'

The Sierra Club does not believe that it is sound policy to charge use fees for low-impact recreational activities such as climbing and hiking while subsidizing destructive activities such as logging and mining. Charging fees has the potential to turn recreational management of public lands from a public service to the taxpayer into a commercial enterprise.

art courtesy Matt Wuerker, www.wildwilderness.org

Solstice Creek is a year-round stream that drops 2,800 feet in three miles. The National Park Service owns about 90 percent of the creek.

The creek is being retrofitted so that it can once again accommodate a spawning run of the endangered southern steelhead, a fish that once spawned in the stream.

Southern steelhead stopped spawning in Solstice Creek when the Pacific Coast Highway was widened in 1947.

In spite of the $2-3 million being spent to restore steelhead to Solstice Creek and the fact that there was already a very successful restaurant on the property, the City of Malibu ignored the testimony of the National Park Service and the Sierra Club.

The Malibu Local Coastal Plan and the city's own General Plan require a 100-foot setback from the outer edge of the riparian woodland. The city exempted the hotel from this requirement.

Denial by the Coastal Commission effectively killed the approval, but the Sierra Club will still challenge the approval in court.

The southern steelhead is close to extinction because, time and again, decision-makers have prioritized the human need to fill, channelize, dam, and pollute our coastal streams, rather than recognizing the need of the steelhead for clear, unchannelized streams in which to spawn. Perhaps last week's Coastal Commission decision will be the beginning of the reversal of that trend.

Proponents of user fees claim that the fee program became necessary in the wake of severe budget cuts inflicted on the agency by Congress. To make up for this lost funding source, forest officials assert that fees had to be charged to help with forest visitor impact and to address a backlog of work on public land.

As a result, forest management is currently predisposed toward developing economic incentives. A proposed business model for our national forests suggests that no tax dollars be used as a funding source. Forests must be self-sustained and exploited to generate income.

Environmentalists smell a RAT

A key provision toward this pay-to-play concept is the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act, which is not-so-affectionately known by fee opponents as the national recreation access tax (RAT). The RAT passed in December 2004, effectively ending the Federal Recreation Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo), administered locally through the Adventure Pass program. As with Fee Demo and its numerous extensions, the RAT was passed without public review or comment.

To implement the RAT, the U.S. Forest Service issued interim guidelines to local forest managers last spring which instructed local managers to modify existing fee programs as little as possible.

HIRA borders: here, there...wait, where?

Since Congress mandated that entrance fees could not be charged, the Forest Service extended language in the law to create High Impact Recreation Areas (HIRAs).

Within these HIRAs, fees could be collected as long as the six standard amenities required are located in an integrated manner and can reasonably accommodate the visitor. These amenities include an interpretative sign, toilet, trash receptacle, developed parking, picnic table, and security.

How far these amenities are spread apart to accommodate visitors is not specified. HIRAs are not clearly delineated. An Adventure Pass is required even if the toilet is two miles away, said Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild.

Coyne and other fee opponents are not averse to charging fees where facilities are present. The problem has been charging fees to park your car along the road and hike. The new HIRAs do not reconcile this issue.

Angeles Forest personnel acknowledge that communicating to the public which areas require a fee and which do not will be challenging, especially along Angeles Crest Highway where areas are not contiguous.

New signs will be posted along the Angeles Crest to notify visitors beginning in August, but how effective the signs will be is questionable.

'The Adventure Pass will still be required in many locations that are popular with visitors, but more remote areas will soon be free,' said Angeles National Forest Supervisor Judy Noiron. The problem is that these remote areas often require access from a trailhead requiring a fee.

Local recreation fee activist Deborah Nakamoto is incensed by the Forest Service's intentional disregard for provisions stipulated in the new law. Nakamoto believes that since the four Southern California forests under Fee Demo had been lumped together in theme park fashion under the umbrella of the 'Enterprise Forest,' it will not surprise her if the four Southern California forests are eventually considered one HIRA. 'Somehow the Forest Service will find a way to justify it so you'll have to pay no matter where you go.'

Putting pricetags on trees

The expansion of the market into natural settings is a slippery slope. The Bush Administration's concept of an ownership society, where consumers pay a price to access certain services, is a dangerous model to emulate as it feeds into the perception that something has worth only if it has monetary value.

This is further reflected in a concern held by Scott Silver of Oregon-based Wild Wilderness. Silver said that USFS units that do not generate revenue may be decommissioned. In some circles, fees are then justified as they bring in revenue and de facto save the underutilized sites from being sold off to the highest bidder.

As the Angeles Forest administrator informed me, 'Decommissioning underutilized sites is a possibility. After all, is it really fair for one area to pay for another?'

The growing problem of the marketing of experiences and the loss of authenticity that come from passive acceptance of an increasingly Wal-Mart existence shifts reality away from serendipitous actions to the lure of certainty for the sake of comfort and expediency. The willingness to engage in unstructured events is displaced by the tried-and-true of brand name commodities that define experiences for us.

A good example of this precept is Disney's corporate 'environmentality,' a fundamental ethic designed to blend the company's needs with the corporate-wide conservation of natural resources. Yet Disney crosses the line when it reaches outside its magic kingdom and perceives national parks and forests as resources to be exploited to build fantasies around. This is characterized through the company's explorations of mini theme parks along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Real fun: Disney's California adventure vs. Yosemite

This is a curse to the real life commitment needed to enjoy and protect true wilderness, which involves a deep connection to place.

By invoking its brand, Disney replaces the real world with an imaginary one. Instead of an environment where people test their own abilities and create their own adventures, the wilderness experience transforms into a synergistic display of interactive design features, promotional gimmicks, and technological wizardry which require little effort. Deprived of authenticity and infused with authentic analogs, nature transforms into themed entertainment.

Frederick Law Olmstead advanced the precept that leisure spent in natural surroundings encourages a sense of individual freedom and community. In designing Central Park and in his involvement with Yosemite National Park, Olmstead's goal was to appeal to the wealthy and the educated so they would mingle with citizens of lesser means.

The idea was to leave things alone, and allow nature and society to complement each other without interference from the market. In this sense, natural surroundings are a necessary antidote to the complexities of our everyday lives. They should not be brought-as recreational use of public lands often is-into the same category as prepackaged entertainment, such as going to the movies or a trip to Disneyland.

Forests need federal support Bush admin. fails to provide

While our local forests become more and more important as one of few remaining large open spaces, federal support for our forests is diminishing. Funding is down, staffing is down, and new Bush administration policies threaten to reduce citizens' influence on the management of our forests.

America's 650 million acres of public lands offer the nation's best wildlife habitat, watersheds, camping, hiking, and picnicking opportunities. They remain the nation's best and potentially last refuge from commercialized society. American citizens invested in natural spaces to be set aside for all to enjoy. The trend of public land managers to embrace and conform to privatization locks citizens out from influencing future policy.

Rather than respecting us as the rightful owners of public lands, we are treated like customers. The American people deserve better.

The Land of the Fees

The Federal Lands Recreation Act enacted in December 2004 continues the federal government's controversial 9-year-old practice of charging access fees to visit thousands of high-impact areas on federal lands, allowing the Forest Service to keep charging fees for the next ten years.

While the Fee Demonstration Program that launched the Adventure Pass has now been repealed, the Adventure Pass itself remains. The new law does permit the Forest Service to charge fees in High Impact Recreation Areas (HIRAs) throughout the Angeles, Cleveland, San Bernardino, and Los Padres National Forests. Non-compliance comes with stiff penalities of $100 for the first offense and up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail for further violations, which also bring misdemeanor charges. Eventually an 'America the Beautiful' pass will be offered that will allow access to all federally managed public lands, but until that time, National Forest visitors can use their Golden Eagle or Golden Age Passports to access trails in lieu of an Adventure Pass.

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