End the tyranny of hiking fees

Photo by Cliff DeYoung

An awesome view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada range rewards visitors to the summit of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Each time I visit this treasure, it rewards and exhilarates me. Yet every time I’ve gone lately, I’ve had to keep a wary eye out for rangers who might ask to see a permit I refuse to buy. But that may change thanks to a new effort to end a shameful extortion.

About a decade ago, federal officials launched a plan to bill hikers in national parks and forests through the “fee demonstration program.” Some 385 areas began charging hiking fees or increased their entrance fees by up to 400 percent.

Thankfully, this has yet to affect the Stanislaus, but on Mt. Shasta, it means climbers must buy a $15 summit pass. In Southern California forests, a $30 Adventure Pass took root. National parks like Rainier and Sequoia even billed hikers on top of higher entrance fees. At the Grand Canyon, a hiker must now pay $40 to camp in the wilderness for one night, more than some local motels charge.

Politicians said they needed to charge fees to make public lands more “self-sufficient.” Congress and President Bush made the program permanent in 2005.

One can understand higher entrance fees, which apply to everyone and supposedly pay for general improvements. But billing hikers is indefensible because the undeveloped wilderness they visit is already “self-sufficient.” Fees haven’t changed the backcountry in any way I can see, except to pay for rangers to collect the fees.

Not only does this epitomize big-government waste, it assails our national heritage of public land ownership, with Americans as stewards, not customers.

“Nature’s sublime wonderlands, however well guarded, have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial,” said John Muir in 1908. He was speaking against plans to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley, but a century later the famous conservationist’s words still ring true.

Though I can easily afford them, I’ve felt a moral obligation to, shall we say, avoid paying these unAmerican charges when I hike and climb on fee-afflicted federal lands. I’m prepared to continue this civil disobedience for as long as I can tie my boot strings, but I shouldn’t have to. So I’ve also written to dozens of government officials and personally lobbied Representative Barbara Lee. It looked like a lost cause until December when two senators introduced S2438.

The Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act would restore logic that the current fee structure sadly lacks by allowing fees at boat launches and campgrounds which require maintenance and oversight, and prohibiting them for use of undeveloped wilderness areas which require none. Sponsoring the bill are Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, and Senator Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

There are many reasons for outdoors lovers and all Americans to hope for the proposal’s success, though Crapo’s comments sum the issue up nicely.

“Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15. We shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on OUR public lands,” said the senator. “Mandatory user fees for access to many of those lands limits accessibility to those who can afford the cost and results in a ‘pay-to-play’ system that is unacceptable.”

Turlock Journal, 2008

Postscript: Unfortunately, hiking fees live on through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.