Bill favors charging demonstration fees to access to federal land
|With demonstration fees looming on federal lands at locations across the United States, hikers who wish to enter a popular area near the San Rafael Swell will have to pay a fee or purchase a pass or face criminal charges. |
Since eastern Utah was settled in the late 1800s, most of the roads that run through non-private property in the area have been open to the public, free from restriction and monetary expense. The situation is unique to people visiting many areas in the United States.
"When my wife's uncle took us down one of those dirt roads and I asked him if he owned property up there, he said no," commented one visitor from Tennessee last summer. "I thought sure we would meet someone with a shotgun who would tell us to get out. You just don't go up dirt roads at home; they always are on or end in private property."
One advantage to living in the West has always been the free and open range and being able to access it easily. In recent years, the situation has changed because of environmentalism and protectionism, but still designated roads in most places in the state can be traveled as long as the operator of the vehicle or the pedestrian stays on the trail or road. But that may end.
In many states surrounding Utah, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to designate thousands of areas where federal agencies can charge visitors tolls or demonstration fees.
The demonstration fee came from mid-1990s legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress allowing federal agencies to charge people for using the land in an area. In some areas, the agencies are charging visitors to drive down a road and view the scenery.
The program originally was supposed to be a temporary one, "demonstrating" the usefulness of charging so the involved agencies could plow money back into public lands. But since 1996 when the legislation was enacted, the program has been extended five times.
Recently, Congress added to the list of places where agencies can charge access fees. In addition, HR-3283 was introduced to make the fees permanent and implement the charges on all federal public lands. The bill is sponsored by Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula. Ohio has no open public land.
Beyond establishing fees, Regula's bill would require people who want to use public lands to purchase a license to travel called an "America the Beautiful Pass." The license would make the existing Golden Age Pass, a document that allows seniors to travel through national parks for a one time fee of $10, obsolete. If caught on public land without the pass, visitors could be charged with a class B misdemeanor offense, which could lead to jail time and a fine.
One explanation for the need for the fees has been the fact that federal agencies managing public land across the U.S. have seen costs go up and budgets decrease in recent years.
In a progress report sent to Congress in January 1998, the U.S. Interior Department indicated that "revenues yield substantial benefits because they provide on the ground improvements at local recreation sites."
The fees are supposed to go to local improvements on the site where the money is collected. The original intent was to allocate 80 percent to the improvements.
But a report by the GAO which was looking at the impact of the fees in March 1999 stated that "some demonstration sites are generating so much revenue as to raise the questions about their long term ability to spend these revenues..."
That same report also asked a lot of questions about the coordination of fees within the same area or areas, using examples.
One of the examples included in the report indicates that in Utah, "for example, where the (U.S.) Park Service's Timpan-ogos Cave National Monument is surrounded by a recreation area in the (U.S.) Forest Service's Uinta National Forest, the two agencies decided to charge a single entrance fee for both."
For native Utahns, the action may come as a shock because, for years, American Fork Canyon's Alpine Loop was free to travelers.
But visitors who wanted to see Timpanogos Cave knew they had to pay to enjoy the experience. Now, Utahns and tourists have to pay to enter the cave and drive along the scenic loop.
Many individuals disagree with the way public lands are currently being regulated. There are two primary sides to the issue of fees and land regulation.
One side maintains that the areas are preserved for the public and federal lands should be available to all visitors.
If the access results in an abundance of regulations, restrictions and fees, that's the price the country has to pay.
The other side of the issue argues that the primary purpose of public land is to preserve the areas, often in a natural state.
Preservation can only be done if the public lands are protected and regulated, maintain the fee advocates.
Constructing roads and charging entrance fees to provide more venues detracts from an area's natural state.
Yet somewhere in between the two opposing arguments are the individuals and officials who want to see the land free - in use and in cost.
Recently, the Carbon County Commission discussed a resolution to fight the idea of demonstration or use fees for all kinds of activities.
One of the matters discussed was about how a Jeep safari that had been presented for years in San Juan County had to be canceled in 2004 because the cost for fees had increased from $5,000 to several times the designated amount.
Carbon County is not alone in disputing the kinds of fees favored by the proponents of the bill recently introduced into the U.S. Congress.
On Monday, the Ouray County Commission in Ridgeway, Colo., passed a resolution calling for the abolition of demonstration fees.
The commissioners passed the resolution based on the fact that Ouray County has bee inundated with the practice.
At present, 12 counties in Colorado and a number of political entities in various other states are opposing the expansion of the federal program or the extension of the demonstration fees.
A group called the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition has been one of the organized protesters of the programs and the bill introduced into the U.S. Congress by Regula.
"This bill would make criminals out of taxpayers," maintained Kitty Benzar, a spokesperson for the group. "Here in the West, it would be a crime to leave the city limits without a pass. The resolutions passed by elected bodies at all levels of government help to convince Congress to preserve our heritage of public access to public land ..."