2008 25' Safari FB SE
Join Date: Sep 2007
Denis, I think the entire public lands policy of the last 15 years is involved. I didn't call the Montrose office and I would expect them to tell me they did everything right.
About 15 years ago, Congress started to change long standing policy. Recreation users were to be charged new or higher fees (how fees differ from taxes could be an interesting debate, but I'll avoid that one). Public lands budgets tended to be frozen or only increased with inflation. Maintenance was deferred over and over. I think there was a belief that fees could make up for shortfalls. Thus was born the "fee demo" program. I think it started with authorizing 100 places for the FS and maybe BLM where fees could be charged for places that always had been free.
I think the thing that upset a lot of people was that these are public lands. We pay taxes to support them and to then pay a fee to access our property felt unfair. The fee demo program's biggest Congressional supporter was Ralph Regula, an Ohio congressman. He retired not long ago. For years no one could find out what the FS did with the money. It was supposed to go to local improvements, but it was hard to find out if it did.
Eventually it was decided to raise admission fees to Park Service sites—national parks, national historic parks, national monuments. In recent years fees have more than doubled at a lot of them. This money, like the fee demo money, is supposed to go to the park for deferred maintenance. My nearest NP, Black Canyon, used to be a NM, but because locals and politicians thought making it a NP would increase tourism, it was made a NP. There was no increase in its budget though. Nice place to see, but not anywhere near the class of a Yellowstone ($25) or Yosemite ($20). Now it costs $15 per vehicle, even on the primitive north rim. I think it goes up again next year. Visits to NP's are down since fees have gone up. The big destination parks seem to be doing fairly well, so it must be the Black Canyons that are down. After all, a family on a road trip isn't going to go to a lot of NP's, NM's, and other fee areas. How could they afford all those fees?
The Golden Age Pass used to be free when you first got it. When I was eligible, all too many years ago, it cost $10. Another fee. It hasn't increased since. It's still a great deal, but I can't figure it all out when it comes to the former fee demo areas. I haven't looked into it, but I wonder what proportion of Park Service area visitors are seniors with the pass and if they are a very large proportion of total visitors. Those numbers could show very few paying customers visit a lot of NP's and NM's.
My impression is that the Park Service has figured out that it costs more to collect entrance fees at some places than to charge fees for certain things inside the site. Thus if you visit Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, free to enter, fees to go in the lighthouse. If you go to Great Basin NP, free to enter, but Lehman Cave has a fee. Seniors enter the cave at 1/2 price, but companions pay full price.
Meanwhile, a rash of fires drained FS budgets, so more maintenance was deferred. A move to privatize recreational facilities was started and that caused fees to increase too because now there were profits built in for the concessionaires. Some FS employees were "privatized" and costs, part of the FS budget, went up for the same reasons. In the NF's nearest me (Gunnison, Grand Mesa and Uncompadre, all administered as one), they started closing campgrounds a year or two ago because they had no money to maintain them. This was done very quietly until a local newspaper figured it out. The publicity stopped or slowed the process. Public lands agencies have come to rely on volunteers like Denis because they have no money to fill staff positions.
While all this was going on, extractive industries were promoted. Oil and gas exploration was made the No. 1 priority of FS and BLM land use. A large number of personnel were diverted to approving leases as fast as possible. Once approved, no matter how bad the lease from conservation or other viewpoints, it is a property right and difficult to reverse. There are so many leases now, it will take decades to drill them all. Other mining leases were also promoted. Timber leases added to the development. The irony is that fees for these leases are low, very low, and sometimes the FS and BLM lose money on them. Grazing fees have also been kept low, well below market value on the private market.
The result has been recreational users pay larger and larger proportions of the budget for the various public lands agencies. These agencies have been starved for maintenance funds for years. If it were thought that recreational uses would solve the budget gap, it hasn't. Fire fighting and management has further sapped budgets. Visits to Park Service sites are down. Meanwhile, much environmental damage has been done to some public lands by oil and gas, grazing, and other development. Efforts in the past to get those who have done the damage to pay for it has been largely fruitless (the Superfund tax, for ex., was allowed to expire years ago, so now we all pay for cleanup) and every one of us will eventually pay for remediation.
The fee demo law was changed a couple of years ago. Better controls over budget were finally enacted. The demonstration project was largely made permanent as I undertand it. No doubt pit toilets have been built. No significant money was appropriated for the maintenance backlog—I agree with Dennis. The public lands policies from the mid '90's forward did not change that much. The Stimulus bill did provide more money for maintenance, but not enough. A lot of public lands infrastructure was built for stimulus programs in the 1930's and is now falling apart.
So, if you want to camp on public lands, there are fewer places to go, and the ones that are there cost a lot more. The Interagency Senior Pass (once the Golden Age Passport and now having several different names on NP websites—they don't know the name either) seems to have been subject to loopholes to collect more fees. Individual recreational users are expected to pay for maintenance, but fewer users mean fewer revenues collected. Lots of fees irritate people and turn them against the government. Destination parks get a greater proportion of visitors than they used to. Industry still gets lots of revenue and concessionaires seem to be doing quite well. If this is our land, it doesn't feel that way.
Whether public lands recreation policy changes in the next few years is impossible to predict. It often gets lost among all the other things that need doing. I think the government has done a poor job for a long time administering public lands. Some things the gov't does well, this is not one of them. There have been a lot of dedicated employees for the Parks, NF and BLM, but a lot have quit in recent years because they became so discouraged.
End of public lands treatise.