Munro: Is it still our land?
February 20, 2015
"This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me"
Woody Guthrie's signature populist anthem is showing its age. Though parts of it are as relevant as ever, where it's getting noticeably frayed is with respect to our federal public lands, a place many of my generation consider an inviolable sanctuary of freedom.
While these lands may once truly have been called ours, increasingly they are under pressure from quarters that would make them less so. Oddly, the pressure is coming not just from those who would convert federal lands to private or state ownership but also, ironically, from those who are perhaps overzealous in their stewardship roles.
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Once relegated to the fringes, the movement to transfer ownership of much of the western preserve is gaining steam once again as another so-called Sagebrush Rebellion percolates. Some advocate transferring vast swaths to private ownership, the argument being that economic benefits derived from government ownership pale in comparison to what would occur under private ownership. Thankfully, polls indicate strong public opposition to this idea.
Transferring federal lands to state ownership is another matter. In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act demanding the federal government turn over some 20 million acres of federal lands in Utah to the state. The Act set a deadline — Dec. 31, 2014 — and the state is now saber-rattling about filing a lawsuit. It has even set aside $2 million for legal costs.
Idaho passed a similar law, also in 2012, but set no deadline. And, according to an October 2014 article in the High Country News (HCN), another six western states have or are still considering the idea.
While some legal scholars see little chance of these movements succeeding, others are not so sure. Proponents cite what they claim was a "promise" by the federal government to one day transfer these lands to the states. Opponents say no such promise was ever made.
Aside from obvious issues — such as continued public access, basic management and all manner of public-private agreements — there are a few other not-so-niggling matters at stake here. Like fighting wildfires (in Idaho alone a $169 million annual expense). The issue of mineral rights is also a potentially gargantuan financial issue.
Presumably, states so inclined would hope to generate sufficient revenues from these lands to offset such costs. One can't help but wonder how they would do that while preserving those portions of the federal land reserve that produce tens of millions of dollars in recreation-related economic benefits for places such as Grand County, not to mention relatively unfettered public access.
Which brings me to threat No. 2 to the "public" in these lands: the agencies charged with administering them.
The Land of the fee
There's no shortage of fodder here with respect to managing these lands for multiple uses, including how that has or has not occurred and whether it may have helped spawn the land-transfer movement. But what I'm talking about is user fees, which in some areas are effectively pricing many Americans out of the market. (Can ya hear Woody strumming that guitar?)
Take Rocky Mountain National Park. It has announced an increase from $20 to $26 starting this summer for backcountry camping permits. Coupled with Park entrance fees that may rise to $30 per car, according to some reports, and suddenly that weekend hiking trip isn't such a bargain. Especially when one considers the land in question is, at least in theory, "ours."
I've seen camping fees at some U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in Colorado as high as $30 per night for a place to pitch a tent. This trend is gaining momentum in much of the Rockies, but it is particularly prevalent on the Left Coast.
Want to climb one of the volcanoes in the Northwest? Don't forget to pack your credit card along with your ice ax and crampons. Not only will you need a Northwest Forest Pass ($5 per day or $30 annually just to park at a trailhead), you'll need a Cascades Volcano Pass ($15 per person Fri/Sat/Sun) or $10 per person weekdays.
OK, some of these costs can be avoided by ponying up $80 for an annual pass such as the America the Beautiful pass. But caveat emptor: Acceptance of the pass is optional at many federal sites. What a deal.
Mind you, in the days before the Fee Demonstration Project, most of this was free, camping costs were nominal, campgrounds were manned by friendly, helpful federal employees rather than surly concessionaires, and one could undertake camping and climbing trips with a lamentably bygone spontaneity. So, when did our national heritage become a scenic amusement park, charging even those who "own" it whatever the market will bear to partake of its splendor, something which ought to be the birthright of every American?
To be clear, I don't entirely blame the National Park Service or the Forest Service or the BLM for turning to fees to supplement their budgets. They all have backlogs of infrastructure and other needs, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) — nice euphemism — allows them not only to charge for certain amenities, but to keep the lion's share of the proceeds for local use.
In the absence of reasonable congressional appropriations — and that lack is deplorable — who can blame them? Yet, bureaucracies being what they are, out of a sense of financial self-preservation, federal land management agencies have concentrated on projects that allow them to charge fees to recreational uses rather than allocating resources where no revenue will be generated.
None of which has done much to ingratiate these agencies to a large contingent of the outdoor recreating public. But it could be worse.
A bill is has been floating around the U.S. House that would allow federal land management agencies to charge visitors for virtually any activity — including merely being there — on federal lands. So far, fortunately, the bill has not gained much traction. Yet it hasn't been relegated to the dust bin, either, which is precisely where it belongs.
Ah well, cabin fever must be setting in for me to go on such a rant. Maybe I just need to get into the great outdoors. Oh, wait, better grab that wallet.
If Congress doesn't do the right thing, which is to fund federal land agencies appropriately so they don't have to continue nickel-and-diming recreational users to death, they may well find themselves on the receiving end of more than one Sagebrush Rebellion. But I'm not holding my breath.
One final question from Woody: "Is this land made for you and me?"
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