The original rationale put forward in support of Fee Demo by its supporters in 1996 was that by charging and retaining fees for all kinds of recreation the federal land management agencies would enjoy supplemental revenue which they could use to address their longstanding maintenance backlogs and improve visitor facilities.
The WSNFC and our affiliated organizations disputed that right from the beginning. Instead, we warned that charging fees for general access and undeveloped recreation was the first step on the slippery slope toward privatization of our public lands. It changes the focus of land managers from public service to revenue generation and causes them to treat us as customers, not as owners.
Sadly, our predictions have proved true. As soon as Fee Demo became reality, appropriated funding began being diverted away from fee-charging units into administrative overhead, leaving local managers to rely on fees instead of, not in addition to, taxpayer funding.
Maintenance backlogs have grown bigger than ever, local recreation budgets continue to decline, and visitor facilities have deteriorated or been closed instead of seeing improvements. By the time Fee Demo was repealed and replaced in 2004 with the more restrictive Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, local managers had been forced to become dependent on fees for their most basic needs. Many believed (and still do) that even their own jobs are in jeopardy unless they continue to charge fees for everything. That has led to costly litigation and terrible public relations. Read about one forest manager’s disillusionment with fees.
On the National Forests more than 80% of developed campgrounds are now under private, for-profit management. Forest Service concessionaires are allowed to control access to backcountry by means of parking fees at trailheads, which FLREA prohibits the agency itself from doing. Concessionaires don’t have to honor federal passes or comply with many other provisions in federal law. Any parcel of federal land that is under a concessionaire permit has been converted, de facto, into private property.
The WSNFC has been bringing these issues to the attention of Congress for years and we continue to work with them to craft fair, common sense fee legislation that will result in real improvement in visitor facilities and restore good relations between the federal land agencies and the public they serve.