By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Pine and other anti-fee activists complain bitterly of the handouts the federal government gives to mining, logging and grazing interests at the same time that it asks hikers and campers, whose tax money already funds the forests, to fork out a $5 parking fee. "If you include campground charges," Pine complains, "this is a blatant triple tax." Which is especially galling, he says, given the Forest Service's long history of subsidizing extractive industries like logging that damage the land far more than the most careless and destructive hikers. A 1995 government audit found that in the previous three years, thanks to logging subsidies, the Forest Service lost $1 billion on its timber program. Even without such giveaways, the Forest Service has a hard time keeping tabs on its dollars. Another audit, from 1997, found that the agency's bureaucratic inefficiency "cost up to $100 million a year at the project level alone."
In an attempt to rectify this, Congresswoman Lois Capps of Santa Barbara has drafted legislation that would end the Adventure Pass and logging subsidies, using funds saved by eliminating the latter to finance the forests' recreation budget. Her district, and Ventura County as a whole, has heard far more outcry over the Adventure Pass program than has Los Angeles. ("Since coming to Congress," Capps has said, "I have received more angry calls, letters and e-mails on this topic than almost any other matter of federal policy.") The Capps bill, though, stands little chance of getting out of the House Resources Committee -- chaired by Don Young, Frank Murkowski's counterpart in the House of Representatives -- much less passing on the House floor.
Regardless, Jeff Pine and others plan to continue protesting as long as the program remains in effect. Pine has concentrated his efforts on Los Padres Forest, nearer to his home in Ojai, but a local chapter of Free Our Forests has been demonstrating in the Angeles Forest. Bob Bartsch can be found most weekends at the Clear Creek ranger station, trying to convince visitors not to buy the pass. "This is supposed to be a pilot program to see if people are willing to comply," he says. "How can you tell if people are willing to comply by forcing them to comply?" Bartsch claims that Michael Rogers' 66 percent compliance rate does not reflect support for the fee: "They buy it because they don't want to receive a citation."
For his part, Rogers dismisses the concerns of Bartsch and Pine, contending that private ventures in the forest simply aren't profitable enough for wide-scale commercialization to be a legitimate worry. Many of the contractors who were managing campgrounds in the forest have failed to renew their contracts because they can't turn a profit. "If this was a very lucrative game," Rogers says, "private industry would have lobbied Congress and taken the national-forest system over years ago. It's not. It's a very hand-to-mouth existence." The ARC's Derrick Crandall concurs, dismissing Free Our Forests' conspiratorial view of the fee program as "ludicrous." "I can tell you right now," Crandall adds, "that the Americanã public feels that recreation on public lands is an incredible bargain, and [is] willing to pay substantially more."
IF THE ACTIONS OF LOCAL POLITICIANS bear any relation to the feelings of their constituents, Crandall is far from correct. Over the past few months, the boards of supervisors of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Kern counties have all drafted statements voicing their opposition to the Adventure Pass. And last September, both houses of the California state Legislature passed resolutions urging that the fee program be repealed. Bill Mabie, a spokesperson for state Senator Richard Polanco, who co-sponsored the Senate resolution, says Polanco was motivated by his conviction that the fee "discriminates against the poor." "There are a growing number of Latinos using these areas, and a good portion of the Latino community are low- income folks," Mabie says. Polanco's "concern is that just as there's an increase, there's a fee. He considers that a disturbing development."
Left out of much of the debate about the Adventure Pass are the many Los Angeles families who get by on less than $10,000 a year, for whom a trip to the woods, even if it only includes money spent on gas and food for a picnic, is already a barely affordable luxury. Protesters from Free Our Forests and similar groups, all largely white and middle-class, rarely evince much interest in the Adventure Pass' impact on the poor. For their part, Forest Service representatives say they've seen no drop since the Adventure Pass was introduced, though they admit that they haven't tracked visitation rates in years. And Michael Rogers and Derrick Crandall both, when asked about the pass's effect on low-income forest users, pointed to the success of the fee program at San Gabriel Canyon, which is largely used by a working-class Latino crowd, as evidence that fees don't keep anyone away. "I don't believe that a $30 annual pass or a $5 daily pass," lobbyist Crandall glibly adds, "are prohibitive costs."
If some of the hikers and picnickers interviewed in the Angeles National Forest agreed with Crandall, others were outraged. "It's the wilderness," said one bare-chested, tattooed man in his mid-20s who identified himself only as Steve. "You shouldn't have to pay." The Adventure Pass had not stopped Steve from taking his kids hiking at San Gabriel Canyon; he simply didn't buy one. But his parents, he said, who first took him to the forest when he was 2 years old, no longer come to the forest, "because they don't want to get a ticket." Don, another hiker at San Gabriel Canyon, supported the program. "Thirty dollars a year doesn't hurt me," he said, and the fee "keeps people out of here that come in and trash things." Asked who those people were, he answered, "To me it looks like the lower-income [people]."