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Adventure Pass may be on way out

Santa Barbara News-Press 12 February 2004

By Leah Etling

Legislation to restrict fees for recreational use of federal lands moved forward in a U.S. Senate committee, to the delight of opponents of the Adventure Pass program, which now requires anyone parking a car in select federal areas, including Los Padres National Forest, to display a prepaid sticker or face a fine.

The Recreation Fee Authority Act, a measure by Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyoming, would confine entrance fees to national parks and mandate the funds be spent where they were collected. The bill would also allow the lapse of the controversial Adventure Pass program, which has been in effect since 1996 in Los Padres and several other demonstration areas. Collection of those fees and others would expire Dec. 31, 2005.

On Wednesday the Senate Energy and Resources Committee approved the bill on a unanimous vote.

"It shows the Senate committee has realized that forest fees just haven't gained popular support," said Ojai activist Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild. The group has about 1,500 members who dislike the fees, he said. Foes of the Adventure Pass have worked against it for eight years.

While the demise of the pass would make fee opponents happy, it could cause difficulty for the Forest Service, which has used the revenue for improvements and staffing that might otherwise have been unaffordable.

"We hope to retain fee authority," said Los Padres National Forest public information officer Kathy Good. "The revenue has been somewhat modest in the Los Padres, but it has been beneficial."

Since 1990 the $5 single-use Adventure Passes, which can be purchased at a discount for a year's use, have netted between $225,000 and $300,000.

Ms. Good siad that money has been used for field ranger salaries, litter and graffiti removal, and special programs including one that brings low-income urban families into the backcountry for the first time.

But activist Robert Bartsch of Pasadena thinks that the forests and parks should be free for everyone.

He sees Mr. Thomas' legislation as a compromise bill that doesn't go far enough.

"I would like to see the recreation fee demo program completely done away with entirely on all our public lands," Mr. Bartsch said. He says he would support a small fee to maintain national forest caompgrounds but nothing more.

Along with four Santa Barbara County residents, he is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Forest Service alleging that the Adventure Pass is unconstitutional.

That case is still on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Los Angeles, said attorney Mary Ellen Barilotti of Los Olivos.

Ms. Good said the Forest Service has tried to make adjustments to the fee programs. There are 12 fee-free days a year, on the last Saturday of every month. A recent change is that people holding a Golden Eagle, Golden Age or Golden Access pas for national parks do not need an additional Adventure Pass.

While Mr. Thomas' bill still needs to clear the whole Senate, activists will now turn their attention to the House of Representatives, where similar legislation has not yet been introduced.

"If this passes in the House and in the Senate, it would create a situation where the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management programs would have to sink or swim on their own merits." said Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based group opposed to the fees. "We believe on those circumstances the fee programs would drown."

The forest fees incited ire locally because so many residents are accustomed to taking a quick drive into the woods for a walk, to look at wildflowers or watch birds. With the Adventure Pass, being spontaneous about such activities is ruined, anti-fee activists say.

"We certainly look forward to seeing the end of the Adventure Pass program and all those signs coming down," said Mr. Coyne.

A popular bumper sticker used by anti-Adventure Pass advocates says, "You can't see the forest for the fees."

With new legislation, however, at the end of next year, hikers and nature lovers may be able to catch a tree fee-free.