Thursday, January 29, 2009

User Fees - Good or Bad?

Under authority of the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act more Forest Service and BLM recreation areas are starting to charge “user fees” at developed campsites.

Some of these fees start at $5 or 6 dollars per night and range all the way up to a $90 dollar/yr. pass at places such as the Sand Mountain Recreation Area in Nevada.

OHVers have a long history of supporting the concept of “user-pay/user-benefit” or “pay-to-play” programs. An example of a self-imposed vehicle registration fee program is the circa 1970s California OHV “Green Sticker” Program. Other states have similar well established vehicle registration and fee collection efforts.

The key to getting user support for any fee program is that monies collected stay on that unit for on-the-ground public services such as trash pickup, RV dump stations, campground maintenance, toilet cleaning and pump outs, and educational outreach.

Recreationists demand accountability. In the mid 1990s, the four southern California National Forests (San Bernardino, Cleveland, Los Padres, and Angeles) developed the Adventure Pass under authority of the 1996 Recreation Fee Demo Program. I remember that many riders at the time felt that most of those monies went to administrative costs with little benefit seen on the ground. I hope that situation has improved.

OHV users don’t want to see funds collected to be associated with arbitrary land closures such as what happened at the BLM’s Clear Creek Management Area in May, 2008. A user fee program had recently been enacted at Clear Creek with support from the users because OHVers wanted to do their part to maintain this popular riding area. Tragically, the area was closed to all publics just a few months after the fee program was started.

Also, the raid on the OHV Trust Fund now being proposed by the Governor of California just shortly after users supported a doubling of the green/red sticker fee leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth with little appetite for fee programs.

Groups like the BlueRibbon Coalition have policy positions on the topic of user fees. Those tenets are: 1 - Fees should be for a specific facility or discrete physical area, not just access to public land in general, 2- Fees should be returned to the area from which they are collected, 3 -Distribution of funds to various projects should be done with full public involvement

Finally, if a user fee is enacted at a unit it should apply to all recreationists who use the facility and not just targeted to OHV users.

In this day of declining recreation budgets, I believe that sensible user fees at developed sites is an important element in keeping those areas maintained and safe for continued public use.

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