Letters From the West

House panel hears debate over expansion of fees on public lands

Randal O'Toole

Randal O’Toole

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area may soon get a financial boost to support its recreation program if a federal law is allowed to sunset.

The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act went into effect in 2004 and a minimal fee on dispersed recreation in the long under-funded SNRA was eliminated. Now that law is scheduled to end in 2014 and the House Committee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held a hearing on whether to keep it.

The law only allows the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to charge people to use areas with amenities such as campgrounds, boat landings, cabins and yurts. It grew out of the idea that general access to public lands in the United States is a “birthright” as former Forest Service staffer and long time anti-fee activist Scott Phillips said when he was among the supporters of the bill more than a decade ago.

On the other side of the issue is Randal O’Toole, a libertarian scholar with the Cato Institute. He wants the federal government to charge fair market value for all of the resources related to public lands including recreation.

Kitty Benzar

Kitty Benzar

The hearing Tuesday pitted O’Toole against Kitty Benzar, president of the Western No-Fee Coalition. She defended the law and urged the House to reauthorize it.

“All of us should have the right to find basic services available to us just for the taxes we pay,” Benzar told House Resources Committee chairman Doc Hastings.

O’Toole opposes the law and argued that charging the true value of dispersed recreation will encourage private property owners to provide the same services at prices most everyone will be able to afford. His idea is to allow federal land managers to charge the fair market value for everything from oil and gas leases to timber, mushroom collecting and recreation.

He would allow them to keep half of the proceeds, an incentive for them to make wise decisions so they could invest the money back into the land, waters, wildlife and even endangered species. Higher fees could reduce crowding while lower fees could open areas that get little use.

“By using those fees it would help the agencies decide how to manage the land,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole is one of those rare voices in the public lands debate who straddles the great divide between environmental protection and resource development. He showed in the 1980s how perverse economic incentives were driving the Forest Service to build roads, destroy wildlife and fish habitat and harming water quality.

His writings and speeches were among the strongest arguments used by environmentalists in the so-called forest wars. His current writing continues to undercut Forest Service arguments for massive thinning and logging to reduce fire hazards.

He would put the responsibility on forest homeowners and communities.

But he also is a voice against community planning and public transportation, using many of the same economic arguments against the environmental planners he used against the timber industry and Forest Service.

He embraces the forest trust idea that Idaho Gov. Butch Otter pushes on national forests. But he opposes the specific bills offered because they give the proceeds to local governments instead of put them back into the land.

The public land fee debate also jumps the canyon. Environmentalists like Phillips and conservatives who view the fees like taxes both oppose them.

If O’Toole were in charge he would even change the system for the Park Service that already charges fees to get into parks. He would charge market rates for hiking, climbing or even getting a good place to view grizzly bears or bison.

O’Toole’s libertarian idealism rarely ends up in public policy, instead working its way into the larger debate. Yet market approaches to divvying up commercial fishing limits have dramatically improved the health of many fisheries in Alaska and elsewhere.

He and I saw where African villagers stopped poaching and put in place protection programs for the wildlife that they shared the land with when they were given control and ownership. He and other free-market environmentalists have expanded the movement’s tools and opportunities.

Phillips’ birthright model leaves the land open to vandals, neglect and eventually reduced access. O’Toole’s model can turn national parks into Disneyland and national forests into tree farms if taken to the worst extreme.

But somewhere there is a middle ground here public lands get adequate general funds to maintain their majesty while encouraging active, growing outdoor use with fee services and volunteerism.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West