Park Wars

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.

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