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NO Fee Coalition: "Don't Pay"

Forget for a moment the cost of purchasing those papers. Forget about the development that could soon be built to lure more visitors to an area in order to better generate revenue to manage the lingering scars of visitors from years previous. Forget about the inequity of these fees, levied against us while extractive industries continue to receive millions of our tax dollars, or the inefficient manner in which such revenue is spent.

Think about why we live where we do and what we hope our children and their children will have to share as we have. Think about that secret spot that provides shelter when life is rough. About those fleeting moments of "otherness," when the worries of work and life were massaged away by escaping, unannounced, through a silent side canyon or along a creek’s sculpted shore. Such priceless retreats, away from the encroaching world of business and the busy hum of every day anxieties, will soon be policed, and their necessary relief lost to us and to the generations to come.

The latest testing ground for the Forest Service’s Recreation Fee Demonstration Program is the magnificent Red Rock Country surrounding Sedona. The Sedona Ranger District initiated the Red Rock Pass Program August 28, 2000, and the program has been a growing reality ever since.

The program covers over 80% of the district, stretching from the top of Oak Creek Canyon to just shy of the 179 and I-17 junction, and reaching from the Munds Mountain Wilderness to the start of Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. Although the district just announced these plans to the public this past winter, they have been planning such a program for years.

The Forest Service is testing their ability to generate revenue by charging those who wish to enjoy the public landscape around Sedona a "user fee." They have spent considerable time and taxpayer money determining how to charge and collect such fees, and how to make sure that enough visitors do come and purchase their new passes.

The Forest Service has had, and continues to receive, lots of help in transforming itself into a more business-oriented entity. Executives from REI and Disney have directly helped the Forest Service with programs, and the annual "Partners Outdoors Conference," held at Disney World in Florida, continues to allow major recreation business interests access to our top public land management officials away from the prying eyes of the actual owners of those lands - we the people.

Jim Lyons, U.S. Under Secretary of the Department of the Interior, has remarked, "We are looking toward the private sector to provide more support for national forest recreation - for an expanded partnership with those who realize an economic benefit from recreation on the public lands. In this way, you can help us help you (as Jerry McGuire said) expand your business opportunities while helping us expand recreation opportunities on the national forests" (6/8/98).

More recently, the Forest Service’s "Recreation Agenda 2000" instructs them to "join commercial ventures, nongovernmental organizations, trade associations, state organizations, and educational institutions in forming viable and sustainable nature-based tourism industries." They would "improve business relationships with contractors and permit holders by making it easier for them to do business on the national forests," as well as "seek authorities for long-term private sector investment in existing and future development."

In Idaho, the new Visit Idaho Parks (VIP) pass was just issued. "This is all-encompassing and the beginning for the wave of the future," said Celeste Becia of the Idaho Division of Tourism. "The number of sites will increase in future years," (Idaho Statesman, 11/30/00). The cost of this annual pass is $69.

Ken Anderson, when describing the Red Rock Pass Program, remarked that the district is "designing a business. When this is done, we will have a product line that has a price tag," (Sedona Red Rock News, 10/29/99). The district recently announced that it will begin to offer guided tours of the area, for an additional fee of course, this spring. Such programs obviously will compete with local outfitters, and the FS is already busy planning its advertising and promotional campaign.

It is, indeed, a quality of life issue. Not only do local businesses face increased competition for tourist dollars, don’t forget the Sedona District is hoping to generate over three million dollars that do not help the local tax base, but the very nature of nature is being transformed before our very eyes. And Sedona is one of the nation’s hotspots.

What happens when a simple walk in the woods becomes a commercial venture? Or when trails are further developed to entice more visitors? What is the affect of paying simply to soak one’s feet in Oak Creek, or to spend some time away from the constraints of the workday reality we all must cope with?

Where is the public good if such fees are being used for agency benefit, with only a small fraction of the revenue generated going to actually helping the landscape itself? (In the southwest, the Forest Service used only 1.8% of its Fee Demo revenue for "habitat enhancement" and "resource preservation" combined in 1999 according to their report to Congress.)

Some of the affects can be seen already. People are scared. They no longer view these lands as theirs. They are concerned that if they have the audacity to enjoy what their taxes provide, they will receive a ticket from the Forest Service, marking them as a criminal. No longer can the Red Rock Country be viewed as a sanctuary for all, as an invisible fence now surrounds it designed to keep out those unwilling or unable to pay.

No longer is that special place an escape from the realities of consumer life, it is now part and parcel of that reality. Through Fee Demo, we have been disempowered; we are now "customers" rather then owners of these varied landscapes. Nowhere has the charging of fees not changed the very nature of one’s experience on public lands.

To add insult to injury, the Forest Service has been quoted in publications across the country indicating that the public likes their new pass program because people buy the pass. In other words, "if you do as we say, you like the program, if you do not, you will be punished," has become the Service’s measuring stick for public opinion. Is that right or equitable? What about the folks who aren’t there because they don’t have the extra money, or those that dislike the program but have been intimidated into purchasing a pass?

Is this the end of public land as we know it? Are we now to be doomed to never escape the consumer culture so pervasive in our country, even upon the frozen peaks of mountains and the expansive desert country? Is there something that concerned citizens can do to attempt to reverse this trend, to ensure that public land is cared for regardless of it’s scenic appeal?

Fortunately, there is quite a bit that we can do, provided we each do a little something.

For those who live in Sedona and do see this as a threat to their quality of life and perhaps to the very reason they live in such a magnificent area, communication about this program is paramount. Not only with your friends and neighbors, but also with business partners and those visitors that one comes into contact with - at the coffee shop, at the bar, on the sidewalk. Encourage business owners to not sell the passes, and shy away from those that do.

We need to let folks know about the perils associated with the Red Rock Pass and other Fee Demo programs across the country. We need to let them know that if they purchase a pass, the FS will mark them down as one more "satisfied customer," whether they like the program or not. We must encourage folks to write to their representatives and demand that they restore public funding for responsible public recreation programs so that environmentally suspect and socially unjust programs such as the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program are unneeded. The fate of our public lands across the country is being decided.

The Sedona District is confident that they will turn a profit with their new venture. Even after the public meeting this past January and one of the largest protests Sedona has seen (both of which amply showed the local resentment to this program) they are claiming that the program is popular, and they are going to use their financial returns to "prove" it. Once again, we must voice our displeasure, and we must be strong and united in our opposition. And this time, we must hit the FS where it hurts - in the pocket book.

The district is counting on visitors to the Sedona area for the majority of their sales. We must work together to show to these individuals that purchasing a pass is not in the best interests of our public lands. Lawn signs are an effective way of communicating with newcomers who are driving through the area, as is distributing literature at trails. Let these folks also know that the cost of prosecuting an out-of-state individual is considerable, which is why locals were being actively pursued in Idaho before the judicial system stopped hearing cases.

One does not need a pass if one is practicing one’s First Amendment Rights. If we visit our public lands to educate others about our opposition to the program, a pass is not needed. Likewise, if folks are at trailheads talking with folks and educating them about the program, one does not need a pass. The AZ NoFee Coalition has distributed literature at trailheads on three occasions, and we have found folks to be very receptive and willing to talk about the program.

Many folks refuse to endorse the program by purchasing a pass. We must let those individuals know that they are not alone in their opposition, that they are part of a rapidly growing movement to resist this monumental shift in public land management policy. Indeed, there are over 170 organizations and political bodies united against this program, unifying people of all political stripes across the country. The AZ NoFee Coalition is one of nine such groups in Arizona.

One of the most effective ways to call attention to the many problems with the program is by stating your case in front of a judge. We encourage folks to refuse to purchase a pass, and if folks do get a ticket, we strongly encourage people to not be intimidated into taking the easy way out and purchasing a pass retroactively. Take your opposition to the judicial system. And be sure to tell the press and your representatives about your case.

The state of Idaho refuses to hear any more cases, as they are too expensive to prosecute and waste the federal judicial system’s time. No cases are being heard in New Hampshire, as it has been found that the presence of one’s vehicle at the trailhead is insufficient evidence to conclude that the individual was present and recreating. Such was the fate of the Forest Service’s recent lengthy and expensive case against four Tucsonites at Mt. Lemmon this past fall.

According to Thomas More, a social scientist with the Forest Service at the Northeastern Research Station, "public sector activities and programs are generally undertaken to accomplish some goal or fulfill some purpose that is not being accomplished in the private sector. Parks and recreation are no exception." It is this very public function that is being discarded in the Forest Service’s pursuit of user fees. This reorientation, away from an agency that serves a public function for all to enjoy regardless of economic status towards an agency concerned with its own economic well-being first and foremost, is amply apparent in Forest Service documents and statements.

More goes on to ask, when these areas "are fully priced and able to operate at a profit, generating a return on investment, haven’t they essentially lost their public function?" The debate about the mechanics of fees, and where the money is going etc, has obscured the underlying reason for the existence of our public land agencies in the first place - to serve their public function.

The fate of the very soul and meaning of our public lands is being determined right now. These lands play a critical role in the formation of the psyche of our country. Whether they remain true to their original intent, as a special place, ecologically intact and somewhat removed from the concerns of our modern society, and owned by the nation as a whole through the simple act of paying taxes, or are further transformed into a vehicle for agency and private profit is now being decided.

Are we to remain empowered as owners and stewards, or are we now docile customers, lining up to see what wonders the Forest Service has created for our consumption. Donít forget - a customer is someone who purchases something from someone who owns it. We must demand that these landscapes be returned to we the people, and we all must contribute to this effort.

The AZ NoFee Coalition has been fighting forest fees in Sedona since we first heard of them last winter. We are a group of volunteers and we have spent untold hours and resources on educating the public and grassroots organizing. We are committed to defeating the Red Rock Pass and programs like it in order to return our public lands to the public.

However, the battle is sure to be a long and costly one. We can’t do it alone. If you don’t like the program, get in touch with us. Put up a yard sign to educate others in your neighborhood, especially if you live near a trailhead. Refuse to purchase a pass. Any publicity generated by or about the program is an opportunity to further inform the public about this increasingly unpopular program.

Write a letter to this paper. Let us know what you want to do, and we can provide literature or come and speak with folks wanting to get involved. Become a member of the AZ NoFee Coalition.

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