No Parks for the Poor

In the face of budget cuts, some land management agencies are ramping up user fees — and betraying the egalitarian promise of public lands.

Joseph Bullington

Photo by Rick Obst via Flickr under CC 2.0

Liv­ingston, Mont. — A while back I was loaf­ing around a camp­fire with a group of friends and strangers on the bank of one of this state’s famous­ly beau­ti­ful rivers when the con­ver­sa­tion turned to the over­crowd­ing prob­lems on anoth­er of this state’s famous­ly beau­ti­ful rivers.

Is it too much to ask that we pay a small fee to use the pub­lic access sites on the riv­er?” offered a well-mean­ing and com­fort­ably wealthy retiree. I sure wouldn’t mind.”

Well, I do mind, and I think a lot of oth­er peo­ple do mind, too.

Under­stand that it’s not because I’m against con­ser­va­tion, or because I believe in human use of land above all else. In some cas­es I sup­port restrict­ing access to pub­lic land if it’s cru­cial to pro­tect­ing wildlife habi­tat. What I’m against is con­ser­va­tion or facil­i­ty main­te­nance that depends on weed­ing out the poor.

The Forest Service’s role is to manage the lands we own in common for the benefit of all us commoners. The reasoning behind this fee hike shows either a misunderstanding or a betrayal of that role.

The Custer Gal­latin Nation­al For­est, which spans from Mon­tana to South Dako­ta and con­tains most of the wild lands that make up the Greater Yel­low­stone Ecosys­tem, recent­ly pro­posed to ramp up the fees at camp­grounds, rental cab­ins and oth­er sites. In many cas­es, the agency plans to more than dou­ble the price. Fees at sev­er­al of my favorite camp­grounds would go from $5 a night to $12, while the cost of two of my favorite cab­ins, cur­rent­ly $25 and $30 per night, would rise to $75 per night. The pro­pos­al would also impose fees of $10 per night at four camp­grounds where now there are none. And in this case, the agency has no such high-mind­ed goal as pro­tect­ing habitat.

The Custer Gal­latin fee hike pro­pos­al is not an out­lier but part of a gen­er­al shift in how we fund fed­er­al pub­lic lands in this coun­try. In 2005, the Fed­er­al Lands Recre­ation Enhance­ment Act gave fed­er­al land man­age­ment agen­cies across the coun­try increased pow­er to impose and retain user fees — and, accord­ing to a report by the Col­orado-based West­ern Slope No-Fee Coali­tion, dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed the focus of land agen­cies: From resource man­age­ment and pub­lic ser­vice to rev­enue gen­er­a­tion. From view­ing the vis­it­ing pub­lic as own­ers to treat­ing them as cus­tomers. From being stew­ards of resources owned by all Amer­i­cans to treat­ing the lands they man­age as agency property.”

The report goes on: By allow­ing local recre­ation man­agers to raise their own oper­at­ing bud­gets, fee reten­tion … has dimin­ished Congress’s over­sight of agency spend­ing, and has almost elim­i­nat­ed the role of the pub­lic as the own­ers of pub­lic lands.”

Custer Gal­latin For­est Super­vi­sor Mary Erick­son explained the agency’s rea­son­ing behind the pro­posed fee increase in a press release: Most of the Forest’s fees haven’t increased in the last 20 years, and though it means more than dou­bling some of our cur­rent fees,” the pro­posed increase will allow us to con­tin­ue to pro­vide high qual­i­ty recre­ation expe­ri­ences.” Jane Ruch­man, the For­est Ser­vice con­tact per­son for the pro­pos­al, told the Boze­man Dai­ly Chron­i­cle that the fee increase will, in the newspaper’s words, make the price for For­est Ser­vice accom­mo­da­tions more com­pa­ra­ble to offer­ings at pri­vate camp­grounds or hotels.”

To Erick­son I ask this: Do you know what else hasn’t increased much in the last 20 years? Real wages, espe­cial­ly for low-wage work­ers. And to Ruch­man, I’d like to point out that unlike the own­ers of pri­vate camp­grounds and hotels, which run them for prof­it, the For­est Service’s role is to man­age the lands we own in com­mon for the ben­e­fit of all of us com­mon­ers. That the agency finds the price of pri­vate hotels in this rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing area rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion shows either a mis­un­der­stand­ing or a betray­al of that role.

I’ve lived and passed through oth­er places in this coun­try where, when you pull into a pub­lic camp­ground, you expect to stuff $25 or $35 into that rav­en­ous green fee enve­lope. Besides my self­ish, local inter­est in being able to spend prac­ti­cal­ly half my sum­mers liv­ing at the camp­ground up the West Boul­der Riv­er, I also think non-local peo­ple shouldn’t have to be rich to take a road trip to Yel­low­stone. I love the idea that a fam­i­ly any­where in this coun­try could pack into their car and spend a week around Yel­low­stone for no more than the cost of gas, food and $35 for a camp­site with all the lux­u­ries of the Four P’s: pit toi­let, pic­nic table, fire pit, and water pump. If there’s any egal­i­tar­i­an spir­it left in this country’s insti­tu­tions — and clear­ly there isn’t much — it’s embod­ied in that idea.

In the idea, I said. The real­i­ty, of course, is dif­fer­ent. In real­i­ty, access to America’s pub­lic lands, like so much else, is not dis­trib­uted equal­ly. Accord­ing to a 2018 For­est Ser­vice study, Recre­ation Equi­ty: Is the For­est Ser­vice Serv­ing Its Diverse Publics?,” the authors found that while Black peo­ple make up 13% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, they account for just 1% of Nation­al For­est vis­its. Lati­nos, who make up 17% of the pop­u­la­tion, account for just 6% of vis­its. Native Amer­i­cans, from whom the lands that became the Nation­al Forests were stolen in the first place, are also under­rep­re­sent­ed. One of the rea­sons for this inequity, the authors write, is that minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions tend to be con­cen­trat­ed in urban com­mu­ni­ties, geo­graph­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed from Nation­al Forests. How­ev­er, the authors write, This iso­la­tion and indi­rect mar­gin­al­iza­tion from Nation­al For­est Sys­tem lands is also often com­pound­ed by eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties that make access to these areas even more difficult.”

We must do many things to make pub­lic lands more acces­si­ble and wel­com­ing to all. Increas­ing fees, and so the cost of vis­it­ing, is not one of them. 

I am sym­pa­thet­ic to the For­est Service’s need for fund­ing. Despite ris­ing vis­i­ta­tion dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, the 2021 fed­er­al bud­get pro­pos­es sweep­ing cuts to the For­est Ser­vice, includ­ing the elim­i­na­tion of the Recre­ation Research pro­gram, a $2.1 mil­lion cut to trail funds, and a $4.1 mil­lion decrease in recre­ation, her­itage and wilder­ness fund­ing, accord­ing to the Billings Gazette.

In the face of those cuts, the Custer Gal­latin Nation­al For­est would lean more heav­i­ly on user fees, 95% of which are retained by the For­est, which has worked hard over the years to rein­vest rev­enue into main­te­nance, oper­a­tions, improve­ment, and resource pro­tec­tion,” accord­ing to the agency press release.

The ques­tion before us, how­ev­er, is not whether to fund For­est Ser­vice oper­a­tions, but how to fund them. Clear­ly, the For­est Ser­vice needs fund­ing. But it should be appro­pri­at­ed in the fed­er­al bud­get, not foist­ed onto For­est-users in the form of increased fees.

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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