A bill to repeal the authority of federal agencies to increase trail and wilderness access fees was introduced in early December by two Western lawmakers. If passed, it would reverse legislation passed in 2004 that authorized federal agencies, with the exception of the National Park Service, to increase fees for such access permits as the Northwest Forest Pass.
The 2004 law followed a fee demonstration program that set into force trailhead-access fees more than 10 years ago. The demo fee, which was repeatedly extended by Congress over the past decade, has fueled debates within the outdoors community over what is dubbed the “pay to play” rule.
The bill introduced by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) would rescind the 2004 measure, formally known as the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), but also called the Recreation Access Tax, or RAT.
Baucus, a long-time critic of the fees, said the current system amounts to double taxation because “Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15,” referring to federal income taxes.If passed, the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007 would reinstate legislation dating back to 1965 that limits the use of fees on public lands.
The creation of trailhead access fees has drawn guarded support by some outdoors and recreation groups such as The Mountaineers and adamant opposition from other groups such as Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, Wild Wilderness and Free Our Forests.
The Mountaineers adopted a policy statement in 2006, during the heat of the debate, that said the club “supports developing programs so that recreational users can contribute to the management of these treasured wild areas.” It cautioned, however, that the club “believes that the success of fee programs and the willingness of recreational users to pay fees depends upon how fees are implemented.”
Crapo argues that user fees “limit accessibility to those who can afford the cost and results in a pay-to-play system that is unacceptable.” However, both he and Baucus noted that lawmakers will have to fight to reallocate federal dollars to the trail and access system if the FLREA is repealed. Crapo said he “will continue to fight in Congress to make sure the funding needs of our public lands management agencies are met.”
Baucus said debates have flared up in communities across the West as fees began to rise after the 2004 bill was passed. He said he hopes the bill will help resolve those disputes. Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, hailed the bill. Baucus worked closely with Benzar as well as the late Robert Funkhouser in crafting the legislation.