Park Wars

Wilderness enthusiasts wonder where the commercialization of our national parks will end

| January / February 2003

BIRD-WATCHERS, hikers, and bikers are not your usual criminal element, but a program that allows America?s national parks and forests to charge users? fees for boat launches, hiking trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds has seen thousands of outdoors activists hopping fences and evading park rangers in an effort to enjoy nature gratis?which was, of course, the point of the parks in the first place.

When Congress passed the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (otherwise known as ?fee demo?) in 1996 after years of lobbying by the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), advocates argued that the legislation would help cash-strapped parks and historic sites by allowing them to retain as much as 80 percent of the fees charged. Opponents?then and now?claim that federal park managers, eager to generate more revenue by collecting more fees, would turn into entrepreneurs looking for ways to replace, for example, low-fee canoe tie-ups with elaborate, truck-accessible higher fee marinas. The mechanized outdoor-recreation industry, which promoted fee demo legislation in the first place, will be more than happy to partner with them. Eventually?according to opponents? worst-case scenarios?we could be talking restaurants, high-rise hotels, and condo developments.

?If agencies begin to act like entrepreneurs seeking self-funding through fees, and low-income people are excluded, the public purpose?the very reason for public ownership?is defeated,? argues Thomas More of the Northeastern Research Station in Burlington, Vermont, in The American Prospect (Sept. 9, 2002). Charges for enjoying public lands can include $5 to park a vehicle and then $5 per person per day, which can significantly raise the price of an otherwise inexpensive family camping trip. ?It is a slippery slope argument,? says Steve Homer of the American Lands Alliance. ?But there?s a long history. The timber sale policy [in the national forests] over time created the incentive to do logging because that?s essentially how they [the forest service] were paying for their salaries and overhead. The same thing could happen with recreation.? And proposals for high-profile resorts to be built on public lands outside Grand Canyon and Zion national parks add weight to Homer?s argument.

These concerns are shared by a group of environmental studies academics from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and York University in Toronto who believe that corporate leisure purveyors are preparing a total shift in our relationship with the wild. Eric Higgs of the University of Victoria has written that Disney is engaged in a campaign ?designed to transform nature into a commodity, to sell nature, wilderness, and the experience of the great outdoors.? If these dire analyses are to be believed, Disney, the American Recreation Coalition, and its supporters may be hoping that fee demos will be the foot in the door that helps them gain control of Americans? wilderness experience.