Wilderness, Inc. 

Southern California's controversial 'Adventure Pass' program

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
Photo by Issa Sharp
THE VIEW FROM THE TRAILHEAD PARKING LOT ON the Angeles Crest Highway about a mile south of the Clear Creek Ranger Station is a dramatic one. To the south, the foothills of the San Gabriels form a wide bowl, at the basin of which -- on a clear day -- you might be able to spy the L.A. skyline. But such clear days are few and far between, and for most of the year you can see nothing at all save a thick, brown puddle of smog that fades, as you look up through several shades of yellow, to a sort of smudged azure, and at last to a storybook crystal-blue sky, limned with enormous stratus clouds that stretch above you and guide your gaze back over your shoulder to the craggy mountains looming just to the north, where the shadows of each rock and yucca and wind-bent juniper fall with a clarity all the more astonishing for its contrast to the view from which you've turned.

It is perhaps because such vast and extraordinary wilderness -- covering a full quarter of Los Angeles County and populated with mountain lions, bears and plague-bearing squirrels -- sits in such tenuous proximity to, and offers such an easy escape from, one of the largest urban centers in the hemisphere, that a 2-year-old program requiring visitors to the Angeles National Forest to purchase a $5 daily parking pass has been met with such an impassioned response. "I look at these mountains," said one man protesting the fee outside the Clear Creek Ranger Station last month, "and I no longer see a symbol of freedom. I see a dollar sign."

The "Adventure Pass" program, shared by all four Southern California national forests (the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino), was launched in June 1997. Since then, anyone parking within the forests has been required to buy, either within the forest or from nearby merchants, a $5 daily pass or a $30 annual pass, or face a possible $100 fine. It was one year earlier, in April 1996, that Congress authorized the fees with the passage of the 1996 appropriations bill. Attached as a rider to that bill was a section that created the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, abbreviated as Rec Fee Demo by insiders, which allowed four federal land-management agencies, including the National Forest Service, to collect fees from visitors to public land on an experimental basis until September of this year. It also encouraged them to seek "private investment and partnerships to enhance the delivery of quality customer service and resource enhancement." In the fall of 1998, the demonstration program was extended another four years -- again on a rider, which means that neither the program's original passing nor its extension was ever openly debated by Congress.

Forest Service officials are thrilled by the program, which provides them with much-needed funds they otherwise would not have received. Opponents of the Adventure Pass see more sinister forces at work. They claim the fee is corporate America's foot in the door to privatizing and commercializing what's left of this country's undisturbed public lands. But no one knows just yet -- and few seem to care all that deeply -- what effect the Adventure Pass will have on the poor, for whom the forest had always been one of a very few places to bring the family, have a picnic, swim in a creek and breathe clean air, all without breaking the bank.

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MICHAEL ROGERS' CASE, AS HE PRESENTS IT, IS NOT unsympathetic. As the supervisor of the Angeles National Forest, he is charged with the care of the most heavily used plot of public land in the nation. The Angeles gets more visitors -- about 30 million per year -- than Yellowstone, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Yosemite national parks combined. In addition to keeping the forest's hikers safe, its bathrooms clean, its trails groomed, and its picnic areas trash- and graffiti-free, Rogers is responsible for protecting the forest's 60 endangered species, controlling wildfires and maintaining its precious water supply, which amounts to 35 percent of the drinking water for Los Angeles.

Though the Forest Service's recreation budget has been in peril since the 1970s, it rose briefly at the beginning of this decade. But since the mid-'90s, Congress has been as loath to spend money on the upkeep of federal land for recreation as they have been for a great many other, more vital social services. Over the past six years, while costs rose 3 percent to 5 percent annually, Rogers has seen his recreation budget shrink by more than 15 percent. As a result, he says, "Our work force was downsized to the point that we weren't even effective anymore." Trash stayed on the ground; repairs were left undone; shooting ranges, picnic areas and small campgrounds were closed. After years of budget cuts, Rogers despaired of getting more money out of Congress. "The public is going to have to help pay," he says, "because there are just not enough tax dollars to cover all the costs."

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