WASHINGTON – The Forest Service is eliminating $5 and $10 recreation fees it charges at about 500 picnic areas and trailheads after outdoor enthusiasts and Western lawmakers complained.
The fees also could disappear at other recreation areas among thousands operated by the government but will remain at those with parking lots, restrooms and other amenities under a law Congress passed last year.
The new law "raises the bar for sites to qualify for charging fees so the public can enjoy more amenities," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.
Nationwide, 61 percent of more than 16,000 sites operated by the Forest Service will be free of charge, officials said. That is an increase from 58 percent that are already free.
A law pushed by the Bush administration and signed by the president in December granted longterm authority for the once-temporary fees at recreation sites, but set standards under which they could be collected. It immediately set off a storm of protest, particularly in the West where much of the land is controlled by the government.
The fees generate about $170 million a year for the Forest Service and three Interior Department agencies: the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Officials use the money to maintain restrooms, collect trash and provide other amenities.
The most dramatic change in the initial round of fee cuts made this week is in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors to about a quarter of the sites in Oregon and Washington where fees were charged no longer have to pay them.
In Oregon's popular Willamette National Forest (search), 43 day-use sites will charge fees, down from 69 last year. In some remote forests, such as the Umatilla National Forest in eastern Oregon and Washington, fees at all 20 day-use sites are being dropped.
In California, fees are being dropped at 88 of 591 sites. Nearly half of all Forest Service sites in the state will be free.
"Recreation on federal lands has grown tremendously over the past several years, and the rec-fee program has been a valuable tool for allowing forest managers to meet visitor demands for enhanced visitor facilities and services," Bosworth said in a statement.
Activists hailed the return to free access at more recreation areas but said the new law still gives federal managers too much leeway to determine what sites are eligible for fees. For instance, in some cases old and poorly maintained portable toilets are considered permanent, they said.
Ken Fischman of Sandpoint, Idaho, said the government shouldn't charge fees for visiting any national forest since people pay taxes to maintain them.
"These fees discriminate against low-income workers and families," said Fischman, who belongs to a coalition of outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists and sportsmen circulating a petition urging Congress to repeal the fees. Legislatures in at least three states — Oregon, Montana and Colorado — have passed similar resolutions.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a longtime critic of the fee program, said he was "vehemently opposed to the Forest Service charging citizens to park at undeveloped trailheads with a dirt pullout, one battered picnic table and a decrepit outhouse."
Interior and Forest Service officials acknowledged that the fees — instituted on a trial basis in 1996 and renewed every two years since — are unpopular. But they say the charges allow cash-strapped agencies to provide security and comfort for visitors.
The Forest Service is the first agency to eliminate some recreation fees. Price policies at national parks, wildlife refuges and other recreation areas are also being reviewed, but no decisions have been made, said Interior Department spokesman Dan DuBray.