Trail Fees - A Bad Idea for a Rogue Agency by George Sexton
Armed Guards at the Trailhead Imagine returning from a hike in your publicly owned National Forests to find an armed Forest Service law enforcement agent sitting in his new $50,000 SUV, video taping the license plate number of your car. Then imagine that he gets out of the SUV and separates you from your hiking companion in order to question you and threaten you with arrest for failing to pay the Forest Service trail fee. Well that was the scenario that my hiking partner and I encountered the last time that I attempted to visit the Siuslaw National Forest in the Oregon Coast Range.
While one can avoid the specter of harassment by armed Forest Service agents at your favorite trail head by paying them off with trail fees, what you may not know is that paying trail fees is a political decision that has serious ramifi-cations for the future of your forests.
Here is the untold story about the trail fee program.
How Does the Forest Service Spend Your Trail Fees? Despite the common distaste for paying to visit lands that one already owns, many hikers grudgingly pay the trail fee because they assume that the Forest Service will use the money to build new trails or to improve existing trails. Unfortunately very little of the trail fee money goes to projects that most forest users would consider improvements.
Paying For Administration According to the Forest Service, about 20 percent of the fees collected go toward administration of the program. In other words, it goes to pay for the new SUVs, guns and law enforcement officers to catch those who cannot or will not pay the fee. This at a time when the Forest Service budget for law enforcement for timber theft (illegal logging) and illegal dumping on public lands is woefully underfunded. While the Forest Service sends armed guards to collect trail fees at trail heads, old growth trees are being illegally logged and household trash is being dumped into your forests.
Trails vs. Logging Roads The remaining monies collected by the fee program very seldom go towards new trail construction. In the Willamette National Forest for example, back in 1960, there were 1,600 miles of hiking trails in the forest, and over the next 30 years the trail mileage actually shrank by 300 miles. During this same period, the miles of logging roads in the forest skyrocketed from 1,800 miles to over 6,600. The massive road building initiative resulted in a road maintenance backlog in the billions of dollars. While hikers are expected to pay to subsidize the agency’s meager recreation budget, the timber industry is off the hook for the massive costs of maintaining the bloated network of logging roads. The trail fee program charges you to use a decreasing number of trails in an increasingly damaged forest.
Trail Fees to Cut Trees When the trail fee monies actually do get spent on trail maintenance, the projects tend to involve paving over the soil and cutting down the trees, and occasionally putting up large plastic signs. Not exactly the types of maintenance most hikers envision their trail fees funding. One of the Forest Service’s favorite trail fee funded projects involves widening existing trails. Usually this means taking a single track dirt trail, and doubling its width, cutting down lots of trees in the process and often paving a portion of the trail in question. During this process a number of dead standing trees called “snags” that are in the vicinity of the trail are often felled for “safety” reasons. This despite the fact that snags provide the best wildlife habitat in the forest and that far more injuries have occurred from cutting down snags than from random windfall events.
More Hikers on Fewer Trails At the same time that the Forest Service is charging for the use of existing trails, and considering limitations on the number of hikers allowed in wilderness areas, it is actively destroying trails.
A particularly sad example of this phenomenon is the Eagle Creek timber sale adjacent to the Salmon Huckleberry wilderness area, just an hour east of Portland. Due to its popularity as a hiking destination, several years ago the Forest Service proposed limiting the number of visitors allowed in the Salmon Huckleberry wilderness and began charging trail fees. One would think that this situation would cause the Forest Service to place a high value on protecting the existing trails in the area. But as part of the Eagle timber sale the agency intends to log right up to gorgeous ridge-line Old Baldy trail that forms the Western boundary of the wilderness area. Similarly, the Forest Service recently completed cutting along several sections of the famous Pacific Crest Trail on the Mt. Hood National Forest.
The result is that more hikers are pushed onto fewer trails at which it is then easier for the agency to collect trail fees.
Paying the Fee is Counted as Supporting the Program Recently the Forest Service reported to Congress that hikers overwhelmingly supported the trail fee program. How did they reach this surprising conclusion? Well, they took surveys at fee sites of people who had already paid the fees. In other words, if you avoided the trail because of the fee, you could not be part of the survey. Similarly, stopping into a Forest Service office to purchase a trail fee is interpreted by the agency as evidence of your support of the program. By using such an accounting methodology, the Forest Service disenfranchises those who cannot or will not pay the fee.
Paying for What You Built Many folks in Oregon remember the decade of intense citizen activism that was necessary to protect the magnificent ancient forests of Opal Creek from the Forest Service’s plans to clearcut it. Part of the citizen efforts included the construction of hiking trails through the old growth forest, in order to show their friends and neighbors the world class wilderness values of Opal Creek. If one now wishes to visit these citizen-constructed trails built to protect the forest from the Forest Service, one is expected to pay the agency $5 for the privilege, or risk facing the armed enforcement officers.
The story is similar all over the Northwest. The Forest Service now charges hikers to use trails that were constructed by Native Americans, or created by adventurous anglers, or built by forest activists to showcase forests that the agency wanted to cut down. When viewed together with the Forest Service’s old growth timber sale program, a disturbing image develops of an agency that believes that it entitled to sell things that it did not have a hand in creating. It would be farcical if you or I set up a toll booth on an Interstate highway and charged motorists to use a road built by the government. Yet the Forest Service believes it has a right to charge you for trails they did not build, and sell trees they did not plant. Trail fees go to support an agency that charges hikers to use trails that have existed for decades, and logs trees that have stood for centuries.
You Are Not Alone Over 200 environmental, conservation and recreation organizations oppose the trail fee program, and they represent hundreds of thousands of Americans. You can reach these groups and help their efforts to protect access to your public lands by visiting http://www.freeourforests.org/opposition.html and you can find out more about forest defense by “logging” onto www.americanlands.org
Enjoy and Protect Your Forests!
George Sexton is the Watershed Coordinator for the American Lands Alliance. For the past five years he has worked to protect the watersheds and ancient forests of the Cascade Mountain Range. George is a fifth generation Oregonian and loves to hike whenever possible. He never pays trail fees.