Critics say loopholes enable federal agencies to charge illegal fees
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — The federal pay-to-play program will get a once-over in Congress this week, as a House subcommittee hears from agency officials and citizens before the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act expires next year.
At issue are how the fee program for access to public lands is being implemented by federal agencies. The hearing is set to start at 10 a.m. EDT and should be available as webcast via the House Committee on Natural Resources website.
The access fees started in the late 1990s as the so-called fee demo program, enabling federal land agencies to charge fees as long the money was used to improve the area where it was collected.
The program was controversial from the start, especially in places where the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management charged people just to park and hike on public lands.
In 2004, Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act in an effort to clarify where fees can be charged. The law limits fee collections to areas with specific developed amenities, but the agencies have faced constant criticism and over attempts to expand fee collections to areas not authorized under the law.
The U.S. Forest Service has also lost or settled several court cases related to illegal recreation fees, including at Mt. Evans in Colorado, where visitors can now drive along Mt. Evans Road without paying a fee.
One of the witnesses at the hearing is Western Slope No-Fee Coalition president Kitty Benzar, who will focus her testimony on the Forest Service and BLM, which charge the public fees for general access, roadside parking, scenic overlooks, passing through federal lands without using facilities, and dispersed areas with little or no federal investment.
All such fees were prohibited by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act when it was enacted in 2004, but have continued nevertheless, Benzar said.
“The public’s voice under fee demo was very clear and very loud,” Benzar said. “General access fees were not popular, and FLREA was an attempt to reign it it,” Benzar said, adding that the current law has two big loopholes that have enabled federal land managers to charge fees that, in her view, weren’t intended by Congress under the law.
For one, Benzar said the way the law is currently written encourages agencies to install amenities (toilets, picnic tables) in some areas just so they can continue to charge fees.
“The agencies have turned it upside down,” Benzar said, describing it as a “build it and they will pay” approach.
“The other big loophole is that some jurisdictions have decided that they can declare “special use” where fees can be charged, even if the area doesn’t have any of the specific amenities outline by FLREA.
That includes places like the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area, where the BLM charges $3 per day just to park and hike, without providing any developed facilities.
The FLREA was enacted as a 10-year authority in December, 2004. It is due to sunset at the end of 2014, unless renewed or replaced by Congress. Hearing details, including witness list and testimony, will be posted at the subcommittee website as they become available.