A funny thing seems to have happened to U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Mike Crapo on their way to fighting to keep public lands in the public's hands: They overlooked the 84 million acres of the national park system.
Earlier this week the two swelled their breasts and spoke out in distaste over the concept that Americans, whose taxes theoretically pay for the public lands and their management, should be expected to pay fees if they actually wanted to go visit those lands.
"Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15,” Senator Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said in announcing the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007. “We shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on OUR public lands. It just doesn’t make any sense. That’s why Mike and I are going to fight like the dickens to get this bill passed."
Good golly, that's great news! What do you have to say, Senator Crapo?
“As an outdoorsman and legislator, I have always supported fair and reasonable access to our nation’s public lands. Mandatory user fees for access to many of those lands limits accessibility to those who can afford the cost and results in a 'pay-to-play' system that is unacceptable," the Idaho Republican added. "I also fully recognize that we need to adequately fund recreation activities on federal lands and will continue to fight in Congress to make sure the funding needs of our public lands management agencies are met.”
That's swell, too.
But sadly the senators' concept of adequately funding "recreation activities on federal lands" and insisting that Americans "shouldn't be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking or camping on OUR public lands" doesn't apply to the national park system. At least not as their legislation currently is written.
Introduced to the Senate on December 10, the bill would prohibit the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other select land-management agencies from asking you for a sawbuck or two to go park at a trailhead for a hike or to launch your boat down a river for some fishing or paddling.
However, when it comes to the park system it seems the senators are perfectly happy to see Americans (and foreigners, I assume) continue to pay entrance fees, even if all you plan to do is go for a day hike or a paddle. And they also don't seem to have any qualms if you're charged $35 for a ranger-led tour of Big Bend National Park, $10 for a sled-dog demonstration at Denali National Park, or $35 for a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts.
Now, to be fair the legislation does call for a return to the $50 National Parks Pass and the $65 Golden Eagle Passport, which would get you into any national park and all federal lands, respectively, for a one-year period. And that'd be a nice reprieve from the $80 America the Beautiful Pass. The legislation also calls for a cap at $25 on park entrance fees (which makes me cynically wonder if the Park Service might respond, if this legislation is enacted, by setting entrance fees at $25 across the board?).
But if the federal government should be expected to cover the bills for the Forest Service and BLM et al, why not those for the Park Service?
"Largely because this bill is basically intended to deal with access, just simple access to undeveloped areas on federal lands," Lindsay Nothern, a spokesman for Sen. Crapo, tells me. "National parks are obviously developed-facility oriented."
And I thought they were nature-oriented, or culturally oriented, or historically oriented. And I swear I've entered developed facilities and campgrounds at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a Forest Service property. And at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a BLM property, there are some beautiful new visitor centers. True, those aren't lodges or restaurants, but in parks those facilities are operated by concessionaires who charge fees to run the facilities.
"We're hearing a lot of complaints from people who say why am I paying twice to simply put my boat in a river, or park at a trailhead?"," Mr. Nothern continued. "We don't get those kinds of complaints from people entering a national parks and many national park areas."
But what about folks -- such as those in Seattle, or Jackson Hole, or Bar Harbor, or Flagstaff, just to name a few cities and towns within a short drive of a park -- who live close enough to a national park that they might want to drive in to a trailhead and go for a day hike?
"You're right, those are the same issues," Mr. Nothern acknowledged.
But, sigh, no dice for park visitors in this legislation. Could it be that park fees are too politically charged to mess with, as has been suggested to me by someone close to the wrangling that went into this legislation?
"People understand they're going to pay some money to get into Yellowstone, for instance. There are facilities there," said Mr. Nothern, sidestepping the hot potato question. "There are improvements. This legislation is targeted at the unimproved areas where you're paying to park at a trailhead, where there's no facilities there.
"You're right," he then allowed. "Maybe all these (parks, forests, BLM lands) should be considered. But this legislation, in and of itself, will probably be a tough enough sell for people on the East Coast just to get this through. We wanted to get this discussion going, it's a good way to do it."
The discussion is not new. At Wild Wilderness, Scott Silver has been fighting the battle against fee demo, (aka the Recreation Access Tax, or Rat Tax) since 1991. National park entrance fees have gained additional national attention in the last year as the National Park Service has slowly but steadily moved ahead with plans to bump up those entrance fees and index them to inflation.
Those efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Earlier this year local opposition led Park Service Director Mary Bomar to agree not to increase fees at Yosemite and Crater Lake national parks as well as Lava Beds National Monument, and similar opposition has mounted at Olympic National Park.
Perhaps Messieurs Crapo and Baucus didn't hear about those unhappy Americans.
Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade would be happy to see the National Parks Pass made available once again.
"I’d be pleased if we go back to the National Parks Pass and I think you are correct that there might not be much other effect to NPS if this legislation is rolled back," he said.
That said, Mr. Wade hoped the legislation wouldn't result in a standard $25 entrance fee for all parks, or spur a rise in other "amenity" fees.
"I’m sure there will continue to be efforts to establish and raise additional fees for amenities throughout the system until Congress steps up and appropriates enough money to run the parks," he said.
Officials at the National Parks Conservation Association applauded the legislation, largely because it would do away with the ATB pass.
“We strongly support the reinstatement of the National Parks Pass. This pass is a terrific value for park visitors and enjoyed strong public support,” said Vice President for Government Affairs Craig Obey. “We also appreciate the bill allowing the National Park Service to continue to retain monies collected from park pass sales, entrance fees, and other fees.”
Mr. Obey added that his group "supports reasonably priced entrance fees for national parks and believes they provide a valuable source of revenue for the parks. At the same time, we strongly believe that these fees should supplement -- not supplant -- federal appropriations. Furthermore, we believe that fees should be set at affordable levels so all Americans have the opportunity to have their lives enriched by the parks. "
NPCA also worries about the increase of amenity fees across the system. Indeed, earlier this year it lobbied against Denali's decision to charge adults $10 to watch sled-dog demonstrations and $15 for backcountry permits.
"We're very concerned that fees in some cases may be covering basic interpretive functions that should be funded through federal appropriations," Mr. Obey said. "That's why it's so critically important for Washington to adequately fund the operations of the parks."
It would seem that if the national parks are largely exempt from this legislation that a dangerous precedent will be established. That being that Americans should be expected to pay fees to enter the parks. With that in place, why would any Park Service director in the future agree that entrance fees or amenity fees are unreasonable? When that comes home to roost, the parks will no longer be held in the public trust for all Americans, only for those who can afford to visit them.
And when you think about it, perhaps Senators Baucus and Crapo have things backwards. Forest Service and BLM lands are managed for multiple use, so it shouldn't seem unusual for the agencies to charge fees for those uses, whereas the parks were set aside to conserve the landscape and resources and provide for the enjoyment of future generations. Perhaps this legislation should be aimed at making it possible for all Americans to enjoy the parks, regardless of ability to pay $25 at the door.
While the legislation as currently written would provide little relief from Park Service fees, perhaps some will materialize as the process moves forward and senators and representatives begin to study the bill and summon the land-management agencies to hearings to explain their finances.
"Let the agencies come in and explain, what they need and why they need it," Mr. Nothern said. "Many of the members of Congress, including my boss, want to know where the money is going. Every year you look at the appropriations to some of the agencies, they are on the increase every year, but yet we always hear 'we don't have enough money to do so and so.' So, let's get it on the table and try and sort it out.
"No one's trying to cut funding for improvements, but we do want to make sure money is not being lost in the middle some place back in the D.C. bureaucracy. We want to make sure it's getting to the ground."