Can't See the Forest for the Fees

Destinations, August 1998

Can't See the Forest for the Fees

The feds' new pay-to-play scheme has public-lands users up in arms
By Andrew Rice

Jeff Pine is standing on a high ridge, thousands of acres of national forest stretching out below him. "Our battle cry," he announces to the dozens of ranchers, hikers, environmentalists, ATV owners, and bikers gathered around him, "is that our national forest is our birthright! The forest is the last thing that's free. We should never let it go."

Consider yourself on the front lines of one of the great battles of public-lands usage, a tussle that could embroil anyone who plans to visit a national forest next year. On a fine spring day near Santa Barbara, this assemblage of unlikely allies, brought together by Pine and his group, Free Our Forests, is protesting a new federal program that, to those gathered, seems anathema to American recreational life: the Forest Service's first major attempt to charge admission fees.

Few expected this reaction a year ago, when the program first went into effect. It seemed straightforward enough, involving the implementation of a $5-per-day or $30-per-season usage fee in the Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland, and Los Padres National Forests in southern California, with the proceeds earmarked for trail repair and new restrooms. Forest Service officials added that if the California pilot program proceeded smoothly, similar efforts would be implemented nationwide.

Smooth, however, is not the word to describe the Adventure Pass experiment. Forest users of all stripes quickly denounced the fee, especially after it became public that much of the early money collected was being used not for trail maintenance, but to pay for new agents to collect the fees. Protests became open and angry. Some day-trippers hung mocking "Misadventure Passes" from their car mirrors. Others threatened to boycott local retailers enlisted by the Forest Service to sell the passes, causing many business owners to withdraw from the program.

Meanwhile, the perenially cash-strapped Forest Service claims that the Adventure Pass experiment has been misrepresented. They hope that Congress agrees, since it will vote next spring on whether to renew the California program, expand it to the rest of the nation, or scrap it entirely. "There's a tremendous amount of support for this," says Los Padres National Forest recreation officer John Bridgwater. "It costs a lot of money to manage public land. The question is, should the entire nation have to pay for it with their tax dollars, or should the people using the land pay as they go?"

Illustration by Michael Klein

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