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The Real Reason for Public-Land User Fees


It used to be said that, if you worked in the rural West, you took a goodly portion of your pay in scenery. Backwater wages may have been low in comparison to mainstream pay scales, but for many people, there was compensation in the free recreation on the public lands all around them.

Granted, the National Park Service has charged entry fees for about as long as anybody can remember, but the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management offered millions of acres -- everything from slickrock and sagebrush to alpine panoramas -- and it was free to all visitors. The only time you had to pay was if you used a developed campsite. But lately, we've started to see signs on public land that demand daily fees for things like parking or strolling on a trail.

Some friends have pointed out that the Forest Service budget has been shrinking even as forest visitations have grown. Accommodating forest users costs money, and it has to come from somewhere. Our Republican Congress has shown no willingness to be that somewhere -- forest visitors are apparently not generous campaign contributors -- and that leaves visitors as a revenue source.

Other friends just observe that those "$5 a day user fee" signs make excellent firewood.

But maybe there are other reasons for charging entry fees for public land.

If your stomach can handle chili verde, it's probably strong enough to handle reading the rural real-estate advertisements in any newspaper published in the Mountain West (or the Wall Street Journal, for that matter). You'll often see phrases like "adjoins National Forest" or "surrounded by public land."

Obviously, these are sales points. There's a country realtor with whom I am often on speaking terms, and he offered some details.

"Being next to public land adds at least 25 percent to the value of a parcel, and being surrounded can double the value," he said.

"Private land can get subdivided and developed, maybe even into a trailer park," he continued, "but public land is pretty safe from development. Buy a parcel next to public land, and you're reasonably assured of never having many neighbors at all, let alone the wrong kind of neighbors."

So being near public land adds value to property, and real-estate sales are a major industry in every county with National Forest land.

But what's the point of paying a pretty penny for that parcel if just anybody -- like gun-toting riff-raff driving an oil-burner cracked-windshield beater pickup -- could camp right next to your fence, any time they wanted to? Where's that seclusion you thought you bought when just anybody -- like local dishwashers wearing Army surplus along with a brace of homely mongrel dogs -- can walk past your estate?

This being America, it's really important to protect property values. And it seems obvious that the best way to preserve the premium prices on those "next to National Forest" domains is to keep the riff-raff out.

The Homeowners Association can't exactly install guards and gates at the National Forest boundary, but it can encourage the federal government to do pretty much the same thing -- put guards that collect user fees at the gates. Those who can't pay, can't enter, and those who can't enter the National Forest aren't going to be lowering the property values of adjacent homeowners.

Thus are the riff-raff kept out to the benefit of the new gentry of the New West. Since everything else that has happened around here in the past decade has been to the benefit of that group, this seems like the most sensible explanation for those public-land user fees.

As for us riff-raff, well, it appears we won't get paid in scenery any more. Trouble is, nobody's offered to make up for that by increasing our other wages -- you know, the kind you can fold and spend.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Salida, Colorado.

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