By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Rogers' account of the genesis of the Adventure Pass is local. It began in 1988, he says, with a $3-per-car fee that the Forest Service, in conjunction with L.A. County, initiated in a heavily used area of the forest above Azusa called San Gabriel Canyon, where "we had so much trash and graffiti and vandalism that we were being cited routinely by County Public Health." The extra revenue allowed Rogers to clean up the area, and the crowds kept coming: "We had to close the gates at 10 o'clock in the morning." Rogers cites the success of that program, and the conclusions of a 1993 questionnaire sent out to the Forest Service mailing list, as the origins of the idea for the Adventure Pass. "The response we got back was 'We love the job you guys are doing. We know you're not getting enough money, and if you guys would charge a fee that stayed on the ground, we'd support that.'"
THE CONCEPT OF PASSING THE COST OF RECREATION on public land directly to the public itself has been floating around the halls and meeting rooms of the nation's capital for the last two decades. It was there, in 1979, that the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) was founded. A lobbying group for the recreation industry, the coalition represents more than 100 corporations and private groups, from Disney to Exxon, from KOA to the NRA, from the American Petroleum Institute to the American Association for Nude Recreation. Instrumental in whisking the current fee program through Congress, the ARC has sought to create recreation fees since its founding and, with the happy cooperation of Ronald Reagan and his secretary of the interior, James Watt, took part in the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, from 1985 to 1987. The National Recreation Strategy that commission produced in 1988 provided much of the outline for the current Recreational Fee Demonstration Program; it encouraged the Forest Service to "look for funding sources outside the federal budget," both through charging fees and forming partnerships with private corporations. More than that, it introduced a new way of talking about visitors to the forests: as customers.
In the mid-1990s, with a Republican Congress gleefully hacking social services from the budget and passing huge chunks of the federal bureaucracy into private hands, making the public "pay to play" and encouraging private partnerships with government land agencies found supporters both within Congress and in the unfailingly conciliatory Clinton administration. But Rec Fee Demo also reflects a deeper shift in the Forest Service's sense of its own mission. As sales of federally owned timber to private logging interests have dropped precipitously in recent years (timber sold in 1998 netted less than 30 percent of the amount sold 10 years earlier), due in good part to a broadening body of environmental-protection law, the Forest Service has been forced to cast around for new industrial sponsors and sources of revenue. Recreation has been the most obvious answer. With a few notable exceptions, Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck has received bipartisan support for his efforts to corporatize the Forest Service's management techniques and transform what has long been considered a birthright -- recreation on public land -- into a marketable commodity.
By 1998, the corporate ethos had become deeply enough ingrained in government circles that James Lyons, an undersecretary with the Department of Agriculture (the Forest Service's bureaucratic parent), felt comfortable telling a gathering of recreation-industry executives, "Outdoor recreational experiences are among the most valuable products that come from the national forests . . . We've got a great product to sell. And with your help, we can make it even better!"
IT WAS THAT SORT OF LANGUAGE THAT MOTIVATED Jeff Pine to form Free Our Forests, one of several protest groups fighting the Adventure Pass. "Being called a customer while I'm birdwatching -- I'm sorry, that's wrong," insists Pine. "The fee program's sole purpose is not to compensate for lack of tax dollars. Those tax dollars are there, they're just being misappropriated and misspent. And the program's not here to clean up our forests. Its purpose is to demonstrate to the federal government and big business that outdoor recreation on public land can be a marketable product, and that the American people are willing to pay for it again and again." Pine fears the Adventure Pass is just the first step in opening the forests to "the amusement-parking of the American wilderness." He points to the Forest Service's recent approval of a 270-acre development including hotels, restaurants and housing on forest land just south of the Grand Canyon as a sign of what's to come.
The fee program's congressional supporters, Pine adds, are hardly friends of the great outdoors. Two of its most outspoken advocates, Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington and Republican Representative Jim Hansen of Utah (both of whom have received campaign contributions from Derrick Crandall, president of the ARC), have repeatedly been given zero ratings for their environmental records by the League of Conservation Voters. In 1995, Hansen introduced legislation that would sell off national parks to meet budget gaps. And all of the fee program's main supporters in Congress have long records of supporting government subsidies to the mining and logging industries. The timber industry's great ally Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, who has perhaps been the environmental movement's staunchest foe and has sponsored several bills that would have sold off public lands, not only has received campaign contributions from Crandall, but was honored by the ARC as "an outstanding American leader whose personal efforts have enhanced our nation's outdoor legacy."
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