Committee approves 72 fees in one meeting

Pacific Northwest Recreation Resource Advisory Committee Approves 72 New and Increased Fees Over Strong Public Opposition

Listen to a 19-minute podcast about the meeting HERE.

nwfpbeyondPORTLAND, OR- February 2, 2010 More than 70 Forest Service recreation sites in Oregon and Washington will see new or increased user fees under proposals approved at a teleconference meeting of a citizens advisory committee. The approvals were unanimous despite the fact that most public comment about the proposals was overwhelmingly negative.

Fourteen people took advantage of the opportunity to call in to the Tuesday afternoon teleconference to express their views about the proposals. All of them spoke against approval, which was consistent with previously documented public opposition. Nevertheless, they were all approved.

The fees will affect visitors to the Deschutes, Umpqua, and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests, at day-use, camping, and cabin rental sites. They include four primitive camping areas on the Okanogan-Wenatchee, seven new day-use fee sites on the Deschutes, six new fee sites on the Umpqua, and 55 increases at existing fee sites on the Umpqua.

A proposal for 17 new and increased fees on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was withdrawn by the forest on January 22, 2010 without explanation.

This was the first meeting by teleconference of the Pacific Northwest Recreation Resource Advisory Committee (RRAC), and despite occurring on a weekday afternoon, fourteen citizens from as far away as Pennsylvania took advantage of the opportunity to comment.

Twisp, Washington resident Kristi Laguzza-Boosman reminded the committee of their “growing reputation as a kangaroo court” while describing her experience fighting a ticket for failure to pay a fee to access undeveloped backcountry on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. As a result of her successful battle to have her charges dismissed, the Eastern Washington district of the U.S. Attorney’s office has suspended prosecution of all violation notices, pending the outcome of their investigation into recreation fees on the Okanogan-Wenatchee.

Retired Forest Service recreation manager Scott Phillips from Hailey, Idaho, told the committee that “Stop-Pay Here” signs are ” destructive to the quality of the mental rejuvenation experience that we all need and want in our over-mechanized society when we go into the woods.”

Marlene Orchard, representing the Oregon Backcountry Horsemen, said that equestrians resent having to pay to park their rigs before performing volunteer trail maintenance work.

Bend, Oregon resident Scott Silver, Executive Director of Wild Wilderness, pointed out that the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act prohibits fees for access to dispersed backcountry and begged the committee, “Don’t become the cover for the Forest Service to do that which they are not allowed to do.”

Senior camper Elaine Newcomb questioned why the Pacific Northwest forests have so far “gotten away with”  fees for backcountry access that are prohibited by law, and expressed concern about the Forest Service’s plan to discontinue 50% discounts for senior and disabled campers. “What people need right now is to get out and sit under a tree and hear the quiet,” she said.

Despite the outpouring of negative public sentiment about recreation fees, the Pacific Northwest advisory committee approved nearly every proposal on their agenda. The sole exception was a new fee at the Windy-Oldenberg Trailhead on the Deschutes National Forest. After first scuttling the entire eight-site Deschutes fee proposal, the other seven sites were approved unanimously in a “do-over” vote on a revised motion.

“In our 2008 analysis report on the advisory committee process we accused these committees of being rubber stamps for the Forest Service and BLM,” said Western Slope No-Fee Coalition President Kitty Benzar. “Today’s meeting confirms that. This so-called public participation process is an utter sham.”

“It has never been clearer than today that the Recreation Enhancement Act is a complete failure,” said Benzar. “It spells the end of our whole concept of public lands, and the only hope of saving them is to end it.”

Here are the specific fees that were approved:

DESCHUTES NATIONAL FOREST asked for new fees at 8 day-use sites. The sites are all on the Crescent Ranger District, which currently does not have any day-use fee sites. All but one of the fees were approved. Only the new fee at the Windy-Oldenberg trailhead was turned down. The objections raised to the Deschutes proposal included:

  • The briefing memo begins with the statement: “The Deschutes National Forest has an active and generally well-accepted fee program.” No support for this statement is supplied, and there is in fact much opposition to day-use fees on the Deschutes (as on every other National Forest). This Forest also has a history of turning management of day-use sites over to their sole, exclusive concessionaire, Hoodoo Recreation. Once under Hoodoo management these sites no longer accept national recreation passes and are under no obligation to invest revenues back into the sites.
  • These eight currently free sites are said to be “undercutting” private businesses in the area by offering free recreational opportunities. Public lands policy should not be driven by the needs of private for-profit businesses. The concerns expressed about the impact on private businesses almost certainly originate with Hoodoo Recreation, which recently purchased the Crescent Lake Resort.
  • All free access to publicly-owned Crescent Lake and Odell Lake would be eliminated.
  • The six amenities required by law for day-use fee sites are not yet in place. They will only install them if and when the proposal is approved. “Build it and they will pay” is not the way it’s supposed to work. The public would prefer fewer amenities in return for free access.
  • A fee would be imposed at the Windy-Oldenberg trailhead, which controls access into undeveloped backcountry. Fees for access to undeveloped backcountry are specifically prohibited by law, regardless of what facilities are provided at the trailhead.
  • Of 10 public comments received by the Forest, ALL TEN were opposed to the new fees.
  • The annual operations and maintenance of these 8 sites combined costs $49,980. The 2010 congressional appropriation to the Forest Service for recreation operations and maintenance (Note: JUST for recreation, which is a separate line item from firefighting and other costs) is $48,000 per Forest more than in 2009, and 2009 was $96,000 more per Forest than 2008. The problem is not lack of funding, it is the Forest Service’s failure to get the funding they receive to the ground where it’s needed.
  • The briefing memo states, “We anticipate the lack of acceptance by some members of the public to this change, even though we received limited feedback for [sic] the public through the Federal Register and on-site notifications of this possible change.” The law requires that they demonstrate “general public support.” This proposal reflects general public opposition.
  • The small (but emphatic) number of comments received in opposition is compared in a misleading way to the large number of visitors to the Deschutes as a whole. The Crescent Ranger District is the least-visited part of the Forest, and those locals who use the area most have spoken: no new fees!

OKANOGAN-WENATCHEE NATIONAL FOREST asked for new fees at 4 “dispersed recreation campsites,” and they were all approved. Some of the objections raised about this proposal:

  • These are currently dispersed, primitive sites and the majority of the public comments received wanted them to stay that way. Such dispersed minimally developed recreation is exactly the kind that should be fee-free.
  • In order to “qualify” for these fees, the Forest plans to provide trash service. At dispersed recreation sites, Pack-It-In/Pack-It-Out is a better strategy.
  • One of the currently lacking “amenities” that would be installed in order to qualify for fees are fee-collection tubes. Fee collection tubes are not an amenity.
  • Although fees at developed campgrounds are usually well supported, dispersed camping in primitive areas such as these should be free.

UMPQUA NATIONAL FOREST asked for new fees at 6 sites and increased fees at 55 sites, and all were approved. Some of the objections raised about this proposal:

  • The last time they thought of raising fees they didn’t because “the Forest leadership decided to postpone the proposal due to the poor economy and high unemployment in the local area.” Things have not improved – and yet they are going ahead anyway.
  • Justification for fees is given in these words: “Most people expressed that they understood the reasons why the Forest Service would be increasing fees.” That’s irrelevant. What is at issue is demonstrated “general public support” as required by law – not “understanding.” Not much support is demonstrated.
  • Verbal commenters wanted to know the exact amount of the new fee, but this proposal is in terms of a range with the final fee to be determined by the committee. That’s not responsive to public comment.
  • Immediate $3-4 fee increases FOLLOWED by additional phased-in increases, for which the Forest wants pre-approval now. How much of a total fee increase is actually being committed to when one steps onto this slippery slope?
  • All 8 comments regarding the Rujada Campground said the current fee of $8 is “just right.” Instead of responding to the public’s clearly expressed desire of keeping the fee unchanged, the Forest wants an increase “on the low end” – 150%!
  • The comments received are not provided verbatim, rather paraphrased and summarized by the Forest. Other examples of this type of presentation have later been shown to significantly misrepresent public comment.

WALLOWA-WHITMAN NATIONAL FOREST was originally proposing increased fees on 3 cabin rentals and 14 campgrounds. Or maybe at 4 cabins and one teepee, plus new fees at 5 additional campgrounds and one trailhead. The posted information was so confusing it was impossible to tell exactly what their proposal was. On January 22, 2010 the Wallowa-Whitman proposal was withdrawn by the Forest without explanation. Some objections that had been raised prior to the withdrawal:

  • The proposal is not posted on the Forest website, there has been no press release or news article, and public outreach appears to be limited to on-site flyers and a last-minute effort in preparation for this meeting. That’s not sufficient outreach to determine the legally required “general public support.”
  • The briefing memo posted describes several fee increases, while the accompanying spreadsheet lists several additional increases and several new fees as well.
  • The proposal is confusing, inconsistent, and sloppy. It would be impossible for the public to make informed comments without correct and complete information about what is being proposed.