Paying to play

Congress mulls making Fee Demo permanent

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Outdoor enthusiasts should plan to pack their wallets when they head out to public lands.

An Ohio congressman has inserted legislation into a 3,000-page omnibus bill that permanently would extend the controversial Fee Demo program, introduced by the federal government in 1996 to supplement under-funded land management agencies.

If Congress doesn't remove the language from the bill during its upcoming lame duck session, people visiting public lands in Moffat County could expect to continue paying user fees at places such as Freeman Reservoir in the Routt National Forest and Dinosaur National Monument.

The Fee Demo program was scheduled for a two-year run when it started, and Congress has extended it every year since.

Organizations such as the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition have formed for the sole purpose of ending fees on public lands, and similar organizations exist in Arizona and Oregon. Such organizations have objected to the manner in which the new law was introduced.

"The way this was done was just not right," said Kitty Benzar, cofounder of the No-Fee Coalition. "We should have open public discussion if we're going to charge to use public lands."

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, introduced the legislation as a "rider," a clause in a bill that usually has little relevance to the main issue. No public lands exist in Regula's congressional district.

The language includes severe penalties for failure to pay the user fees. The offense is punishable by as much as a $5,000 fine and six months in jail.

The Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Resource Area, which encompasses most of Moffat County, doesn't charge fees to use any of its land or facilities, said Rob Schmitzer, outdoor recreation planner. But the legislation also covers special use permits for purposes such as guiding and outfitting, and the fees charged for those uses bring the Little Snake Field Office several thousand dollars annually.

"Those fees we collect are an important part of our funding to get things done on the ground," Schmitzer said.

The No-Fee Coalition has opposed fees on public lands since the program was introduced. Coalition members maintain the public shouldn't have to pay to access public land. The program basically transfers ownership of public lands from taxpayers to the agencies that manage them, Benzar said.

"I'm an owner, not a guest or a customer," she said.

But Schmitzer said the legislation should address those concerns. The language Regula inserted prohibits federal land agencies from charging people simply to access public land, he said.

The Sierra Club has drafted a statement opposing public land fees in most cases with the exception of national park entrance fees. Nor does the environmental group oppose user fees for developed facilities such as campgrounds in national forests or on BLM land.

But the Sierra Club opposes entrance fees for Forest Service and BLM lands, as well as fees for wilderness or trails on federal land.

Browns Park Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn't charge an entrance fee, though the FWS can charge fees under the Fee Demo program. Dinosaur National Monument, managed by the National Park Service, charges a $10 per vehicle entrance fee and an $8 to $12 campground use fee during the summer but waives the fees in the winter.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@ craigdailypress.com.

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