Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Grijalva, Congress investigate national forest fees

Arizonans challenge unfair and unpopular Mt. Lemmon fees

TUCSON -- US Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ7), my Congressman, chaired an important hearing today on Capitol Hill about Forest Service and BLM fees for public lands access.

Read Mr. Grijalva's opening statement.

Here is the written testimony I submitted yesterday to Congress:

Hon. Chairman US Rep Raul M. Grijalva
US House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands
Washington DC

Chairman Grijalva and other Hon. members -- My family and I appreciate you investigating fees for use of national forests and BLM public lands. We frequently visit our scenic public lands for low-impact recreation in Arizona, across the Southwest and US.

In Tucson, the administration and Coronado National Forest has abused its executive privilege by designating long and wide so-called 'High Impact Recreation Areas' (HIRA) across most of the accessible places in the Santa Catalina Range. While we understand the Forest Service desire and need arguments for fees, especially at highly developed sites, we are very disturbed that the Forest Service, by pushing the HIRA, is violating the letter, spirit and intent of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) of 2004.

On the Catalinas (aka Mt. Lemmon or Frog Mountain), despite the clear prohibitions set forth by Congress in FLREA, the Forest Service has dramatically expanded fee areas since 2004 and is using the HIRA, to charge for roadside parking and simple access of totally undeveloped public lands with no 'improvements'. The Forest Service expanded fees in Tucson with no public notice or advisory committee review, the agency admitted in federal court last week. The Forest Service is also aggressively ticketing, hassling and prosecuting working people and families who may not pay the fee, due to understandings that undeveloped areas on Mt. Lemmon historically have not had fees. The current fee system is unfair and very unpopular with the public.

It is also of concern that the Forest Service seemingly often cannot account in detail for where peoples' fee dollars go and how exactly they are spent. For example, for years the Forest Service had been collecting millions in fees on the Santa Catalina Mountains and Sabino Canyon, but when a big flood recently damaged infrastructure in Sabino Canyon, the Coronado NF asked the public in Tucson to donate money for re-construction, leaving many people questioning where all the fee money was. In fact, much of it is spent on enforcing and collecting the fees, and other wasteful bureaucracy. In some fee areas, Rangers have to spend so much time with fee enforcement, they do little to no natural resource protection work.

The Forest Service has badly abused their authority to charge fees for public lands, and Congressional action is needed now to stop the HIRA and other excessive charges. People need a break from overzealous federal shakedowns like fees for simple low-impact access to undeveloped national forests and public lands, especially during these tough economic times.

Thank you,
Daniel Patterson and family

Watch Coronado National Forest boss Jeanine Derby face questioning about Mt. Lemmon fees on KUAT's Arizona Illustrated May 23 (fee discussion starts at about 10:15 in to the interview)

Watch the Congressional hearing.

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