Adventure Pass extension met with howls of disappointment
Santa Barbara News-Press 23 November 2004
Forest fee program gets 10-year nationwide extension
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Congress has approved legislation extending the Adventure Pass for 10 years and expanding the pilot program nationwide, angering local residents who have long opposed the $5-a-day fee to use Los Padres National Forest.
A rider by Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, authorizing the pass program was approved 65-30 by the Senate and 344-51 by the House on Saturday as part of a mammoth $388 billion, 2005 domestic spending and foreign aid appropriations bill. It now awaits the signature of President Bush.
The congressional action caps years of bitter fighting over the fee, which has sparked protests and lawsuits, all while federal money to maintain Los Padres National Forest has dwindled.
Opponents of the fee said Monday that it was pushed through unfairly because it was tucked into the spending plan at the 11th hour. Some noted that the Adventure Pass program has never made it through Congress on its own merits, but repeatedly as a rider attached to other legislation.
"They are trying to ram it down our necks again," said Helen Larsen, a member of Free Our Forests and a resident of West Camino Cielo.
"It's enormously disappointing," said Alasdair Coyne, conservation director at Keep Sespe Wild and a longtime critic of the program.
"The only way I think it could have been made permanent was by this sleight-of-hand fashion," he said. "Fees are going to be introduced all over the nation, where they haven't been before."
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, was also critical, saying the the Republican leadership "snuck in" the extension without any public debate or discussion. "As neighbors of the Los Padres National Forest, we know that people shouldn't have to pay a fee just to watch a sunset or have a picnic in the local forest. We already pay taxes to support these public lands, and we shouldn't have to pay another to get access."
Mrs. Capps voted against the appropriations bill, mainly because lawmakers had too little time to digest it, a spokeswoman said.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, voted in favor of the bill, but has also been a critic of the Adventure Pass program.
The fee was initiated on a temporary basis in 1996 for Los Padres and several other national forests, parks and other public lands. Mrs. Capps tried unsuccessfully to get it dropped.
The fee, $5 per day or $30 a year, was highly controversial, with many users refusing to pay. Los Padres has taken two Santa Barbara activists to court for repeatedly parking in the forest without a pass.
Opponents, who view the program as an unfair double taxation restricting access to those able to afford it, vowed to overturn the fee extension by pushing for future legislation.
But U.S. Forest officials said Monday that millions of dollars generated by the fee would help to maintain public lands and improve services.
"The recreation fee demonstration program has been a real lifesaver," said Matt Matthes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in California. In 2003, he said, national forests in California generated and enjoyed an extra $6.3Êmillion through the program, with nearly half of that in the southern part of the state.
At Los Padres, officials say the fees generated $250,000 from October 2003 through September 2004. The money helped to repair campsites, pick up 1,582 cubic yards of trash, remove graffiti from 30 locations, repair 21 miles of trails and, among other uses, staff the Wheeler Gorge Visitors Center near Ojai.
The bill does not establish a set fee, leaving that to the various agencies affected, which include the Bureau of Land Management. Also, the name "Adventure Pass" may not stick, as it is not used in the legislation.
Some opponents have their own theories on how the fee wound up in the massive appropriations bill.
They said Mr. Regula, who has no public lands in his Ohio district and is expected to become the next chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, cut a deal with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Regula, they said, agreed to give Mr. Stevens funding for a road through a remote part of Alaska in exchange for allowing the recreation fee bill to be attached as a rider.
An aide to Mr. Stevens on Monday, however, denied the allegation.