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Disneyfication of Nature Beware Corporate Predators in the Woods

The Disneyfication of Nature Beware Corporate Predators In The Woods by Alasdair Coyne

If you had suggested ten years ago, that by the year 2000 the American public would need a government pass to go for a walk in the woods, you wouldn’t have been taken seriously. After all, the ability to “head for the hills,” to venture off into those wide open spaces, is inherent to the western heart and mind. For a century, Americans have known that those lands were stewarded by federal tax dollars, and available to us because we pay those taxes.

Well, the times they are a-changing. Since 1996, we have had a “Recreation Fee Demonstration Program” in place on selected forests. And if the corporate powers pushing user fees on public lands have their way, by midsummer of year 2000, these new fees will be permanently locked in place for just about every piece of federally-owned land administered by the Forest Service, the BLM, the Park Service and the Fish & Wildlife Services all across the nation.

This Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, (“Fee Demo” for short) currently allows the federal agencies named above to charge public access fees at up to 100 sites each. These fees have generated a hailstorm of public protest here in Oregon and in many parts of the country, including Southern California, Washington, Idaho and New Hampshire. Editorials have blasted Fee Demo, stating rightly that taxpayer dollars should continue to fund public lands recreation facilities, not these user fees, which, in essence, constitute a new tax. Protest groups have sprung up and dozens of Westerners now spend some regular weekend time handing out literature at popular trailheads. Four Southern California County Boards of Supervisors, as well as California’s legislature, have passed resolutions against Fee Demo. And six legislative attempts to derail parts of Fee Demo have been introduced in Washington DC.

Yet the four agencies administering these fees report annually to Congress that the American public loves user fees, that they’re going down well—and, please, make them permanent in the year 2000!

The fees the Forest Service currently levy vary from trail fees in Oregon and Washington, to parking fees in Southern California, to fees for climbing over 10,000 feet up Mt. Shasta, to river rafting fees all over the West, to fees to look at Mono Lake. The National Forest user groups most affected by—and opposed to—Fee Demo include equestrians, backpackers, cross-country skiers, ATV’ers, boyscouts, hunters, fishermen, climbers and hanggliders, to name a few.

Follow The Money Activists and groups opposing Fee Demo—including the Sierra Club at the national level—have had a field day unearthing what is much more than a mere change of public lands management philosophy emanating from the recent Republican-controlled sessions of Congress. These groups have found (big surprise!) that the real pressure for Fee Demo emanates directly from major recreation corporations whose beady eyes are fixed on new revenue-generating opportunities (profits!) resulting from the American public’s use of its own public lands. It’s a public/private partnership, but we, the public, were conspicuously not invited to participate in the process. We are invited, however, to pay up new profits for those corporations lined up to administer the program.

Unmasking the close involvement of major corporate recreation interests with the Recreation Fee Demo Program leads us to the next obvious question—who are these corporations and what shots are they calling in this audacious attempt to extract private profit from the American people’s recreational use of their own public lands?

Disney’s Minions The Walt Disney Company has had its eye on America’s public lands at least since the Sierra Club beat back their bid for a massive ski resort at Mineral King in the High Sierra, twenty some years ago. This time around, with a lot of careful planning and years of hard work, their goal is clearly to gain access to profit-making opportunities on all of America’s public lands.

Disney has become intimately involved with public lands agencies and their policies. To begin to understand the nature of this shadowy relationship requires a trip to LobbyLand, in Washington DC.

Disney is by far the most powerful corporate entity in both the “American Recreation Coalition” (the ARC) and the “Recreation Roundtable,” two closely-related public lands lobby groups for the recreation industry. Following is a hint of what they have up their sleeve.

The ARC proudly states that “Recreation fees on public lands were one of the issues which prompted the creation of the American Recreation Coalition in 1979.” Kym Murphy, Disney’s Corporate VP of Environmental Policy, based in Burbank, sits currently on the ARC’s board of directors.

The Recreation Roundtable, formed in 1989, is a group of around 20 recreation corporate CEO’s, including Disney’s, who refer to the Recreation Fee Demo Program as “the direct result of our efforts.” The ARC and Recreation Roundtable share a Washington DC office, phone and fax, as well as staff.

What’s All The Fuss About? Imagine your favorite lake, hidden at the end of a long washboarded road. Imagine what you are rewarded with when you get there....

Now, imagine that road paved, to facilitate easy RV and tourism access. RVers driving their half million dollar Beaver Coaches will not be satisfied with the primitive campground and pit toilets that are there today. They will want KOA style amenities, pull through lakeside camping pads, etc. Then they will want something to do while they are there. They will want a lodge at the lake. A marina with boat rentals. They will want to play golf .....

This is why ARC is promoting industrial strength recreation. They are first and foremost a lobby for the RV industry and need to create the attractions and provide the access necessary to create and sustain a thriving RV market. Disney and others will be the ones who will build the amenities on public lands to service not just the RVers but the tourists who will drive these newly paved roads to the newly built attractions. And the Forest Service will get all this for no cash expenditure of its own. On the contrary, in exchange for providing the business opportunity, proving a long term lease for the lands—and constructing the roads at taxpayer expense—they will get their small piece of the action, just like they do with ski resorts.

THIS is what all the fuss is about.

Prior to Fee Demo, the ability to charge recreation fees on public lands was very, very limited. We didn’t have fees, except for developed campgrounds, National Park entrances, and two or three other things, because the law prohibited it.

Fee Demo is a test to see how best to charge and collect user and recreation access fees for a much wider variety of goods and services than was ever permitted before. It is a program to see what the public is willing to pay for, to see how much they are willing to pay and to see how best to collect the money so as to not tick off the “customers.”

Fee Demo is the thin edge of the wedge. It makes it possible to sell “wreckreation.” But to make this all work out for ARC, additional legislation is needed to promote and permit this wider array of public-private partnerships.

Improving God’s Handiwork Recent ARC testimony before Congress speaks of arranging “for top marketing and communications executives from Disney, REI and other companies to work with the Enterprise Forest fee team in the design and implementation of that project.” In case you don’t know, the Enterprise Forest is US Forest Service marketing-speak for the four Southern California National Forests that comprise the “Adventure Pass” program. (We need an “Adventure Pass” to access our national forest? Sounds suspiciously like Disneyspeak).

Disney’s “Memorandum of Understanding” with the US Forest Service and with six other federal public lands agencies, dated 1995, describes Disney as a “diversified international entertainment company with operations in the following businesses—theme parks/resorts, film entertainment and consumer products.” The stated purpose of the Memorandum is to “work together in partnerships on issues of common interest.”

Wait a minute! Let’s think that last bit through. What “common interests” are being dreamt up between the Disney corporation and federal agencies charged with the management of our public lands? Taking them in reverse order: Consumer products? (Forest franchise stores marketing Disney toys? Don’t think so.) Film entertainment? (There’s a limit to how many movies Disney can shoot in pristine public lands locations.) That leaves theme parks and resorts. Yes, Disney could certainly go to town with that one!

We know a little about the first stage of Disney’s hidden plans for the commercialization of our public lands for their profit. Here are two examples:

  • Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground in Florida. To quote from their website—“Discover camping Disney-style! More than 700 acres of cypress and pine woods surround 784 campsites,” offering “unsurpassed facilities, gated security, privacy and endless recreation. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campsites are bordered by lush wilderness...” Available are beach, golf, restaurants, heated pool, tennis, shops and waterskiing. Does this sound like roughing it in the wilderness to you? Designed for RV users, the price is $64 per site per night. Is this the sort of development you want to see adjacent to your nearest wilderness area?
  • Disney’s Lewis & Clark Bicentennial plans. Disney is in the process of acquiring rights to construct and operate a series of mini theme parks along the Lewis & Clark trail in Montana, in time for the expedition’s bicentennial, around 2005. Disney’s Kym Murphy took a trip through Montana as a guest of the BLM in the summer of 1997 to discuss this project along with other recreation and tourism issues. The mini theme parks would be developed in tandem with a larger Lewis & Clark theme park in Florida.

These examples are only the tip of the Disney iceberg. A common thread in Disney’s other planned commercial ventures on America’s public lands will be the replacement of real wilderness with an idealized, safe and ersatz wilderness, a prepackaged corporate image erected at the edge of a wild place.

But ersatz wilderness isn’t the real thing. Can you imagine Disney’s response to a proposal by wildlife agencies to reintroduce wolves or grizzlies anywhere near one of their “wilderness resorts?”

Disney has no place in America’s great outdoors!

Federal agency studies (at least what gets to print) only describe Fee Demo in rosy terms, though admitting the need to tweak the rules here and there. For example, encourage regional fees to eliminate the checkerboard of different fees that rightly bothers the “customer” (that’s the new Forest Service term for us, the American public, the owners and users of our National Forests).

Resentment toward Fee Demo has gotten many Western Forest users stirred up to the point of becoming first-time activists, generating protest mail to Congress requesting an end to Fee Demo and the restoration of the tax dollar funding for recreation which has been slashed in recent years. Having to drive around to locate the vendor of a Forest Service pass takes the spontaneity out of a drive up to the mountains to watch the sunset or to play in the snow. What’s more, it’s infuriating to find our government putting a price tag on access to wild Nature.

Mickey Mouse Becomes a Predator Dick Nunis, now chairman of the Walt Disney Company, addressing a meeting of federal agency officials and corporate bigwigs (held at Disney World, Jan. 1999) “emphasized an important lesson drawn from his Disney experience; price your product in a way that allows your customers to rate the product highly AND feel that they have received good value for their money.”

Notice again how we have now become “customers” using a “product” when we visit a Forest!

The major problem with this close-knit association between big business and public lands agencies is that there is currently no representation for low-impact public lands users. There is no voice for those of us who oppose the expansion of commercial opportunities on our public lands.

This intransigent unwillingness to take into account the interests of the Forest visiting majority may prove the undoing of Fee Demo. Low impact Forest visitors—those represented by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Audubon Society, hunters, fishermen, backpackers, mountain bikers and others—were never invited to the secret discussions which spawned Fee Demo. Most of them plainly don’t wish for America’s public lands to become Disneyfied. And they’re making their views known to their Congresspeople. To date, at least six Congressional Representatives from Southern California have spoken out against Fee Demo. For conservatives, the new tax represented by Forest fees is anathema. For liberals, it’s clear that public funding must be restored to stem the ongoing commercialization of our public lands. The risk for Disney is that their carefully-laid plans will unravel—or worse, backfire—leaving a nasty, permanent stain on Disney’s squeaky clean image.

The time is now ripe to act to preserve our public lands from corporate predators. At stake is fully one third of the continental United States—public lands that will all require fees if the Recreation Fee Demo Program—which has never been debated by Congress—is made permanent next summer. What a disastrous start to the millennium that would be!

Born and raised in the UK, Alasdair Coyne is an organic gardener by profession, living in Ojai, California. He was a co-founder of Keep Sespe Wild Committee, an organization dedicated to the watershed of Sespe Creek in Los Padres National Forest and now active also in opposing Forest fees.

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