With the recreation season unfolding across California and beyond, outdoor enthusiasts should brace themselves for broadening surcharges affixed to Mother Nature. Such is the new reality forged by the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, a mandate through which federal land management agencies are collecting "user" fees for recreation experiences. This program is being packaged as a last-gasp solution to budget cuts and maintenance backlogs, but critics suggest that it is instead a Trojan Horse through which the privately funded American Recreation Coalition (ARC) and other commercial interests will increasingly colonize public lands.

"Access to public lands is being manipulated for the benefit of sports equipment manufacturers, campground associations and motorized user groups," says Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based environmental group. "The fee demonstration program is ARC''s latest step toward taking control of America''s recreational policies. And this is the summer when, if the public accepts pay-for-play, it will become the law of the land."

Retorts ARC President Derrick Crandall, "I would question the motives of people who would criticize something as above-board and simple as trying to protect the existence of such things as adequate trail maintenance programs, interpretive programs and trash cleanup at public beaches and campgrounds."

Authorized by Congress in 1996 and now entering its second year of implementation, the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program is administered by the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. The four-year program is seen as a potential model or touchstone for more permanent fee legislation. In addition to supporting resource conservation, interpretive efforts and general maintenance, the fee demonstration program also aspires to "enhance" visitor facilities, a goal that some suggest is doublespeak for heightened development of public lands.

According to US Forest Service officials, the agency''s participation in the fee program "is occurring through a Challenge Cost Share partnership with the American Recreation Coalition."

The American Recreation Coalition represents a broad membership, including the following organizations and corporations: American Bus Association, American Forests, Walt Dissent Company, American Horse Association, Coleman Company, Motorcycle Industry Council, National Ski Areas Association, and Yamaha Motor Corporation. Associate members include Exxon Company USA and American Petroleum Institute.

Both ARC and the forest service emphasize that the coalition''s role in the program is not operational, but rather limited to communications materials, media interface, technical assistance and public surveys. ARC President Crandall adds that ARC''s official partnership role will end at the close of the fiscal year. Crandall also says ARC''s advocacy of recreation fees is simply one of many tools that the coalition is employing to preserve recreational opportunities amid the harsh realities of faltering federal land management budgets and decreasing timber revenues.

"I see the fee program as the only way to keep a viable federal back-country program alive and well," he says, noting that forest service recreation budgets at the ranger district level have been shrinking steadily over the past 10 years. "Unless there''s money to support the hiring of people to do everything from maintaining trails to monitoring environmental impacts to ensuring safety, I''m not sure how one would expect back-country--as well as front-country--recreation to continue."

Counters Silver, "The amount of money that''s required to keep these programs functional is something that Congress has always felt was appropriate to allocate from existing taxes. But more recently, ''wise use'' legislators have de-funded these programs and created a deliberate maintenance crisis on federally managed recreation lands and facilities."

The intended outcome of that crisis, Silver says, is "the rescue of a decaying public system by private investors and corporate sponsors." He says new revenues generated by user fees will be increasingly manipulated by commercial interests through the public-private partnership process, ultimately intensifying developmental demands on public lands and paving the way for "industrial-strength" recreation.

To demonstrate his concerns, Silver cites a forest service "desk guide" on public-private ventures that states, among other things, "Traditional views of what types of facilities are appropriate on National Forests...may need to be reevaluated. For instance, to provide a viable business opportunity, it may be necessary to consider amenities such as showers and telephones, or additional sources of revenue such as laundries, electrical hookups, or camp stores, that are not traditionally associated with forest service campgrounds."

Says Silver, "The real importance of user fees at this point is as a referendum. Will we be able to treat public lands as a commodity? Is it okay to take raw nature and turn it into something we can now market and sell to you as products?"

But Greg Super, a forest service recreation staff economist, suggests that such premonitions are misguided. "Are we going to shift everything to the highly developed side?" he says. "The answer is no. Maintaining and preserving the integrity of the back-country is a real strength of the forest service."

Super adds that the most tangible threats to wilderness integrity today are population growth and heightened back-country recreation. The National Forest System saw 800 million visits last year. In 40 years, that figure is expected to reach 1.2 billion.

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"Just because you have a back-country location doesn''t mean there aren''t costs involved in managing it," Super says. "What we''re saying is we need to generate additional fees--especially if they stay locally--to provide services for folks who value these areas pretty highly."

Unlike previous fee systems, in which revenues were largely hijacked by the US Treasury, 80 percent of the fees accrued by a forest or park unit participating in the demonstration program will be applied directly to that unit. The remaining 20 percent will be distributed to other units in the region.

Sierra Club Chairman Mike McCloskey agrees that user fees can be appropriate on public lands, but only under specialized circumstances.

"In general, the more a use has adverse impacts on the environment--off-road vehicle use, for example--the more it ought to be regulated and limited and taxed in some way to pay for the costs of that control and rehabilitation," he says. "But benefits that are widely enjoyed by large numbers of the public, and that are not essentially commercial in nature, should be supported from general taxes, as they have been traditionally."

Ultimately, the current scorched-earth political climate may leave embattled forest service officials little choice but to increasingly develop recreation as a major source of budgetary revenues.

In a recent letter to US Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, for example, Frank Murkowski and Don Young--chairmen, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the House Committee on Resources--accused Dombeck of being "bent on producing fewer and fewer results from the National Forests at rapidly increasing costs." The letter also leveled thinly veiled threats to gut the agency and reduce its role to "custodial management" of national forests.

According to Silver, such threats represent a legislative malevolence toward public lands that, in tandem with commercial lobbying and partnerships, may usher in a new era of corporate ecology.

"It used to be that nature on public lands could be left undeveloped so that people could enjoy and explore it without having to consume products," he says. "But as soon as people are used to the idea that you don''t go out to simply enjoy nature anymore, but rather to pay for some sort of experience, then you can bet that there will be lots of things for which we''ll be paying." cw

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