Editorial: Congress must fix forest fees

Published May 14, 2014 at 12:01AM

Don’t buy the idea that because the U.S. Forest Service has lost a couple of court cases about some fees it charges, other fees will go up. Those making the claim argue that the court losses leave the agency no other choice.

Congress is already working on another choice.

Fees are a bone of contention for some national forest users. The land, they argue, belongs to all of us, and if some forest visitors are not using developed facilities, they should not be charged to be there. There are problems with that argument.

Most forest users, even those who head to the wilderness, end up using something the Forest Service must maintain. Trailheads often are marked with signs and maps, as are trail intersections. Maintenance of even those facilities must be done. That costs money.

The law that has led to such confusion over where fees can be charged is the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act. It gives the Forest Service the power to charge fees — under certain conditions. Unfortunately, within the bill there are conflicting definitions of where the fees may be charged, according to Andrew Malcolm in the office of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

The act expires at the end of next year, Malcolm says, and the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee is already working on changes it hopes to make in getting the measure reauthorized. Among those changes will be language clarifying just where the Forest Service may charge day-use fees.

Current discussions center on what’s available at a given forest site. To charge fees, bathrooms would be required, as would any three of the following four: trash collection, permanent interpretive materials, picnic tables and the routine presence of law enforcement personnel. The list is not cast in stone, at this point.

If forests are to be able to handle the visitors they receive, and if the Forest Service is to be able to build new recreation sites and maintain old ones, the money must come from somewhere. Given the size of the federal debt, the nation’s tax dollars are an unlikely source. Visitor fees, then, will have to pick up the slack.

Congressional changes, which we believe both houses should approve without fuss, will allow the Forest Service to continue to charge small entrance fees under some circumstances. Doing so helps the agency recover maintenance costs and, as a side benefit, hold other fees down.