When Jen Nelson and Blais Arsenault decide to blow off steam after work, the young friends often drive to a US Forest Service trailhead at the edge of town and hike toward a popular mountain overlook known as "the M."
The government doesn't charge them for the experience - yet - but if they were charged a fee, the working-class recreationists say they might stop coming.
"I'd stay away, not only because of the cost, but also I'm opposed to the principle of having to pay," says Mr. Arsenault, who works at a cafe. "Public lands are supposed to be free for citizens to use, aren't they?"
Debate over that question is expected to come to a head on Capitol Hill this summer, and how Congress answers it could shape the direction and protection of national forests and parks for decades.
There are no hard figures for how many families have stopped hiking or camping on public lands since a pilot user-fee program began in 1997. But recent evidence suggests that even modest fees are an obstacle for lower-income families who want to enjoy the outdoors.
A new study at White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire - along with growing citizen opposition to user fees nationally - comes at a time when the federal government is proposing to expand fees throughout forests, parks, and recreation areas.
This weekend, at least 40 protests around the country involving thousands of activists are planned from San Francisco to New York's Central Park.
The fee debate has been simmering for years, but it erupted in the mid-1990s. Federal agencies such as the Park Service and Forest Service complained to Congress that they didn't have enough money to maintain campgrounds and trails. At the time, 85 percent of entrance fees at national parks, for example, went to the Treasury in Washington.
In1996, Congress allowed certain parks and forests to keep the bulk of money they collected, and to begin charging fees for things such as parking or renting campsites. Declaring the program a success, the Forest Service has asked Congress to expand a permanent fee program to most of its lands.
Some observers say this is the wisest path. The government should try to run parks and forests with the intention of making a profit, says economist Randal O'Toole of the Thoreau Institute. He argues that agencies could charge visitors market value for things they have, until now, received for free or at low rates.
According to one study, many citizens agree. A survey for the National Parks Conservation Association showed that 80 percent of the public supported fees as high as $6 per person per day, so long as the money went back to the parks.
Others, however, say recreation falls into a different category than commercial enterprise. Free access to public lands is an important part of the American identity, they say, and raising fees could drive away poorer Americans.
About 1 in 4 households surveyed in Vermont and New Hampshire that earn $30,000 or less annually indicated that fees would prevent them from visiting the national forest, says Thomas Stevens, an author of the White Mountain study.
"We don't exclude kids from attending a public elementary or high school for economic reasons," Mr. Stevens says. "The question is: Given this data, should we be excluding people from the national forest because they can't afford to pay?"
Opposition to fees has inspired acts of civil disobedience. A California hiker refused to pay a $5 daily fee for the Los Padres National Forest and was arrested. He is now demanding a jury trial. In Idaho, the US Attorney's office recently decided to stop legal action aimed at collecting a $50 fine from a woman who refused to pay $5 to park her car in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Scott Silver, executive director of Bend, Ore.-based Wild Wilderness, an antifee group, says it's ludicrous that Americans should have to pay to watch a sunset on lands they already own. "Public lands are no longer a place where we are all equal with nature," Mr. Silver says. "It is fast becoming a setting where we can buy different kinds of experiences, but the person with the biggest wallet gets the best access."
A primary worry of conservationists like Ray Rasker of the Sonoran Institute is not access to remote-but-famous national forests and parks, but rather to public lands that front cities and offer recreational opportunities for people in all income brackets.
The White Mountain National Forest charges $20 for an annual pass that allows parking at any hiking trailhead. Those who cannot afford the fee can earn a pass by volunteering for 16 hours. But low-income people may not have enough leisure time to earn the pass, and even fee supporters have concerns. "We live in an area that is not feeling the economic boom sweeping across the rest of the world," says district forest ranger George Pozzuto. "Low-income folks are not uncommon."
In Bozeman, Arsenault and Ms. Nelson still believe some of the best things in life are free, and they include access to public lands. Says Arsenault: "It's important that all Americans feel welcome in places like this, but asking them to pay isn't very friendly."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society