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Visiting national forests should be free

by Paul Chevalier

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Congress supports the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. As previously mentioned, Congress renewed it and expanded it to include Sedona and other locations around the country. Democratic Senator Bob Graham, of Florida, has introduced legislation to make the program permanent.

Most people I have talked with about our Red Rock Pass portion of the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program didn’t know much about it and had not formed an opinion. People that I talked with, who were familiar with the program, mostly oppose it. However, some people said to me that anyone can afford to pay $5 to park for a day in the forest so why make a fuss about the program? It’s a fair question and I will try to answer it here.

More than 100 years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt, influenced by naturalist John Muir, stated that a fair portion of our forest reserves should be set aside to afford FREE camping grounds FOREVER for the use and benefit of people as a whole. His administration made good on his vision by providing federally managed national forests, open for the public to use without charge, for hiking, camping, and for peace of mind. In America, we have had a long tradition of free access to our national forests.

Today, most people in America live in over-populated cities and do not have daily opportunities to be out in a natural environment. When people can find the time, they should have the right to play in, or find peace in, serene natural settings such as our national forests. They should have this as a right regardless of how little money they have, even if they don’t have $5 to spare. The right of free access to our national forests has been our heritage.

The Red Rock Pass program takes away this right. It requires money be paid to the Forest Service by the people who park at trailheads. If you are a law-abiding person, this makes it impractical to use most trails without paying for parking.

Yet $5 a day parking fee is not a cost barrier for the vast majority of us. Why not forget about our past rights and be quiet and just pay the $5? History shows us that what starts out as small government fees (or taxes) usually get bigger. If the current fee program becomes permanent, we should not count on the fee being $5/day for long.

Fee increases could occur quickly, and with each fee increase, more people will be economically shut out of our national forests. Eventually, national forests could become playgrounds for the middle and upper economic classes.

Higher fees will likely result in more people engaging in civil disobedience, refusing to obey what they consider to be an unjust law, which they may not be able to afford. If that happens, our Forest Service Rangers may be ordered to become the equivalent of meter maids (which is not the reason they became Rangers). Then, Magistrates and Judges will be required to spend time punishing people who refuse to pay this fee, instead of addressing more serious matters that affect the public safety and security.

As some of you know, civil disobedience has already begun. If you have any doubt about this, drive up to a few of the trailheads around Sedona and check on the percentage of parked cars that have not paid the fee.

Can’t sufficient funds to maintain our forests come from the federal budget?

Sure, but Congressional representatives need to understand that it is in their best interest to have all of the national forest maintenance funds come from the federal budget.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. The Forest Service’s economic needs are a low priority for most members of Congress. I believe that this is so because of the following ongoing scenario:

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected every two years. This means that they are almost always preparing to, or are running, for reelection. Running for reelection to Congress is expensive.

Much of the money that candidates receive to run for Congress comes from special interest groups in various ways. In return, special interest groups expect pay-back for their economic aid. Often the things special interest groups expect, as pay-back cost, money that comes out of the federal budget.

If the congressional members don’t deliver, they don’t get the special interest groups economic support, and they may not get enough contributions to be reelected. Therefore, members of Congress use their power to make deals with each other that support the “requests” of the special interests. The members of the Senate have the same problem. True, their terms are longer, but the cost of running for reelection is much higher.

One of the most effective techniques Congressional members use to get special interests projects approved, completely bypasses voting on their special-interest issues in either House of Congress. They can do this by introducing new items into bills in joint House conference committees. This is a little technical, but stay with me.

Joint Conference committees are convened when similar but not identical bills on a specific subject have been approved by both houses of Congress and need to be reconciled with each other. The purpose of the joint-conference committee is to select which decisions in each of the bills, approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate, are to be part of a single joint-committee bill to be eventually sent to the President for his action.

Congressional representatives use this committee proceeding as an opportunity to make their special interest items part of the joint-conference committee’s bill. These new items often were never discussed in any proceeding before either House of Congress. The congressional representatives make these new items additions to the final bill. These items are despairingly referred to as “pork,” but they become law because the Congress and the President have to accept them as part of the joint-    conference committee bill.

How significant is the cost of this so called “pork”? One estimate I have read, at Senator McCain’s Web site, is that more than $15 billion of unauthorized appropriations were approved in this manner by December 31, 2001 for fiscal 2002. A little of this money could have been used to fully fund the Forest Service.

It is not surprising that the programs that get approved through the political budget process that our Congress has invented exceed the federal government’s projected tax income. To make room for “pork,” other programs, such as the maintenance of our national forests, are cut to try to get the budget balanced. The Forest Service is an easy target for budget cutting because there are no special interest groups, representing the forests, that contribute materially to Congressional members’ political campaigns.

Can this be changed? Yes, but it’s hard work. To change the way Congress acts, citizens have to group together in numbers large enough to make our Congressional representatives believe that they may not get reelected if they do not listen to their constituents on this issue.

The various state No Fee Coalitions have been asking America’s towns and cities to enact resolutions opposing these forest fees. Once enough town and city resolutions have been enacted within a state, the state No Fee Coalition and supporting groups approach the state legislature and ask it to enact a state resolution opposing the forest fees. So far four states, Colorado, California, Washington, and New Hampshire, have passed resolutions asking Congress to abolish the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program and to restore adequate federal appropriations for public lands, including our national forests.

The Arizona No Fee Coalition recently approached members of Sedona’s City Council about sponsoring such a resolution and has presented the City Council members with information packets. According to the Arizona No Fee Coalition, there is a possibility that our City Council will consider such a resolution as early as September. If Sedona’s City Council approves a resolution opposing the Red Rock Pass Program, it could influence other city councils around the state to oppose their own local Recreation Fee Demonstration Programs. If enough Arizona cities adopt resolutions opposing their local fee program, then the Arizona legislature may do the same.

 When a state legislature opposes the fee program, what will a member of Congress from that state do? Will he or she risk opposing the government of his or her state in the halls of Congress on this issue? Will he or she want this as a campaign issue at home? Maybe, but it is our best way I can think of to bring pressure on our Congressional representatives.

My hat is off to all the no fee coalition volunteers who are leading this effort.

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