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Wilderness, Inc.

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.

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."

 

In the program's first two years, Rogers beams, Adventure Pass sales have raised almost $1.5 million for the Angeles Forest. Nearly $1 million of that has been spent. Though a good quarter of the money spent went toward administering the Adventure Pass program itself, Rogers says it has also allowed him to clean up trash and graffiti, install portable toilets and bear-proof trash cans, and repair and improve trails and facilities. More than that, he adds, "There's a difference of attitude on the forest [by] our users. People are paying now to use the forest, and they're taking better care of it." Crime and vandalism in the forest are down, he says. And if some people are loudly protesting, and many still don't buy the pass, 66 percent do -- which he takes as a sign that a solid majority of the forest's visitors support the program.

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."

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]."

There will be a little more information next month, when the results of a survey conducted by Jerrell Richer, a professor of economics at Cal State San Bernardino, who recently cut back his work at the university to devote more time to the project, will be available. The survey, which asked forest visitors their feelings about the Adventure Pass program, also factors in data on income and ethnicity. But the survey's conclusions should be received with at least some degree of skepticism: Half of Richer's funding comes from the Forest Service. And the polling will provide no data about changes in forest visitation before and after the fee program was imposed. If the Adventure Pass has been keeping people out of the forest, there's no way to count the missing faces.


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