In the great outdoors, resistance to rising fees

Opposition builds as more federal lands ask visitors to pay.

Retiree John Montle has never protested anything in his life. Now the avid outdoorsman is waiting to appear in court for defying the federal government.

His infraction: refusing to pay a $5 user fee to enter the scenic Yankee Boy Basin near here.

Mr. Montle is part of a growing revolt over a controversial pay-to-play program being tested on federal lands nationwide.

For years, the federal government has charged entrance fees to national parks - and even raised them recently - with relatively little complaint from the public.

Now, however, several other federal agencies - including the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service - are levying user fees at a growing number of outdoor haunts that used to be free.

From Oregon to here in Ouray, the self-proclaimed "Switzerland of the US," the result is rising civil disobedience - sometimes from unlikely sources.

"I've never participated in a protest in my life, and I'm 50 years old," says Kitty Benzar, an active backpacker and skier, who also refused to pay the Yankee Basin fee.

Federal officials say they need the money in the face of stagnant budgets and rising recreational use. They're acting under a 1996 law, the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, that allowed the three federal agencies and the National Park Service to begin charging user fees at selected locales.

Fees were levied last year at 376 locations for such activities as visiting California's Mono Lake, backpacking in the Grand Canyon, reserving a boating permit for Michigan's Pere Marquette River, and parking in New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest.

Fighting back

This tiny town in the San Juan Mountains depends heavily on tourism on Forest Service lands. It's popular with off-road-vehicle drivers who tour century-old mining roads through the high basins and across alpine passes.

In late May, the Forest Service began charging car and truck drivers $5 to travel into Yankee Boy Basin. The picturesque bowl -part of the Uncompahgre National Forest - is filled with wildflowers and mining ruins, surrounded by sheer cliffs and dramatic waterfalls. On average, 150 vehicles traverse the four-wheel-drive road daily between May and October, and several Ouray companies chauffeur tourists along it in open jeeps.

After the fee was announced, a loosely knit group, calling itself the Western Slope NoFee Coalition, organized protests. It is one of more than 200 grassroots groups that have sprung up around the country, according to antifee activists.

On July 7, armed Forest Service officers issued $25 citations to 50 NoFee Coalition members -including Mr. Montle and Ms. Benzar - who refused to buy basin passes.

Ouray Mayor Art Fox was incensed by what he sees as federal heavy-handedness. "All of a sudden, local officials have no control over that area." he said, adding "the majority of the [fee] money is just going to rangers to collect the fees, and I can't support that."

Other protesters around the country have fought the $25 to $50 tickets they have been issued for failing to buy recreation passes. A hearing date has yet to be set for protesters at Yankee Boy Basin.

In Oregon, however, a decision is expected Sept. 7 in the first such case to reach the US district court level. In that case, a woman who works for the Oregon Natural Resources Council was ticketed for failing to pay a parking fee at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The employee is challenging the ticket on the grounds that she wasn't recreating, but working - studying site conditions.

Where does the money go?

Federal officials say they need the money following budget cuts throughout the 1990s. But opponents counter that fees represent double taxation, provide few new revenues, and are the precursor to charging for recreation everywhere. Moreover, they say, it is impossible to oppose the program without breaking the law.

The current recreational fee program expires in 2002. A bill passed by the House of Representatives proposes to extend it to 2006, while a companion bill that passed the Senate does not. The differences are expected to be worked out in conference committee in September.

The fee program was created to allow lands agencies to earn money. Unlike other receipts - such as money from timber sales, which are remitted to the US Treasury - 80 percent of the recreation fees are retained by the agency that collects them.

Federal officials maintain the public supports the fees. "Most of them go back to where they're collected, and they've been used to improve recreation sites, security, parking lots, recreational facilities, educational facilities," says Brad Marman, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington.

But at the Yankee Boy self-serve fee station, opinion is lukewarm. Benny Stringfellow, a visitor from Arkansas who was filling out a permit, has mixed feelings about it: "What's going to happen to the money?" As he spoke, another driver stopped, read the fee information, and drove on without paying.

Critics say that most fee money is spent on administration and collection, and that if new revenue is generated, other funds are shifted away, producing no net gain.

According to Forest Service documents, the agency spent only 4 percent of the $25.4 million it collected last year on habitat enhancement and resource preservation, while 52 percent went to collection, operations and law enforcement.

Lew French, recreation forester on the Ouray Ranger District of the Uncompahgre National Forest, expects the Yankee Boy fee to generate about $25,000 this year. Of that, $19,000 will pay for two new seasonal rangers.

Most critics agree that agencies like the Forest Service need more money, especially since Congress cut budgets through the 1990s. But they prefer to have those funds delivered through the appropriation process.

Critics also worry that if the program becomes permanent, it will eventually become all-encompassing, too. In Ouray, activists expect fees will be charged on other popular roads, even forestwide (already the case in Washington and Oregon).

"If you have to pay to use public lands, where do you stop?" asks Montle. "Will you have to pay a quarter every time you check a book out of the library?"

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