Fund Federal Forests with Recreation Receipts
By Andy Kerr
Column #17 - Go to next column
Length: 746 words
Published: 13March 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain
The US Forest Service obviously faces a crisis in purpose: for what and how to manage the National Forest System.
Another less visible crisis is funding. In 1997, the agency is spending $3.45 billion. The President is proposing $3.11 billion for 1998; about a 10% reduction. More cuts are likely.
Unlike many other agencies, the Forest Service has an asset base—the national forests—which could make the agency self-sufficient and free of Congressional caprice. The agency could take itself off of the general budget and support itself with user fees.
Historically the Forest Service relied on the timber industry, and to lesser degrees, local county governments and the cattle industry to lobby its budget through Congress. In exchange the industries got below-cost timber and grass, and the counties a share of the receipts.
But competing interests and the economics of timber and cattle have combined to make the traditional funding methods obsolete.
The declining power of these industries means they can't help the bureaucracy as much anymore in maximizing their budgets. Big Timber still tries, but it's less effective in the face of other priorities for both the federal budget and for the federal lands.
It is appropriate and fair that the users of the national forest pay their own way. The major constituencies that use the public's forests can sorted into two major categories: exploitation (timber, grazing, mining, etc.) and recreation (hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, driving, skiing and recreation homesites, etc.)
Under current policy, most exploitation interests do pay something, but no where near the cost of providing the commodities.
According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in 1995 the Forest Service spent $234 million more on timber sales than they took in. The agency says it made $59 million because it counted the 25% of timber revenue payments to counties as part of the profit, and didn't count some roads as part of the costs.
Even if the 25% is posted as a profit, the agency still loses money on timber. These payments are in lieu of taxes the counties would receive if the lands were in private ownership. No businessperson or accountant who would consider paying taxes a profit; only a bureaucrat.
The amount that public land ranchers pay for federal grass is but a pittance of the Forest Service budget and a small fraction of the cost of the grazing program.
Finally, miners pay no royalty, and under the Mining Law of 1872, can buy minerals and the public land itself for no more than $5/acre.
Under current policy, recreationists presently pay even less of their share than exploiters. Even though the National Forest System received more visits than the National Park System, the Forest Service received very little money for it. 341 million recreation visitor days (one-person for 12 hours) visited the national forests in 1995. Campground fees, if collected at all, don't pay for operational costs, let alone the capital costs of building them. Ski area and recreation cabin fees are notoriously far below fair market value.
Recreationists don't pay for the roads they drive on or the trails they hike on. Nor do they pay for protecting and conserving the fish and wildlife habitat that they enjoy.
Of the national forest users, only the recreationists are capable of paying their share. For the most part, the timber, grass and minerals aren't worth any more to the exploiters than they are now paying, even though it costs the government much more to provide them.
Assume that the Forest Service needs $2 billion annually, including fair payments to local counties. This is generous, since eliminating the money-losing timber, grazing and mining programs would save money directly and also require that much less be spent on mitigation for water quality, wildlife habitat and endangered species.
To support itself, the Forest Service would only have to collect an average of $6 for each recreation visit. A movie ticket averages about $6 in this country. It's not unreasonable to collect $6 for a day's hiking or $12 for a national forest campground stay (cheaper and prettier than a KOA). Volume discounts could be given in the form of an annual pass, which might cost $1/week.
National forest stewardship would improve, along with recreation facilities, the federal debt (and perhaps taxes) could be reduced, environmental protection standards could more easily be complied with, and a federal agency made self-sufficient. Who could be against that?