For Greg Lewis and Gaye Adams, a recent junket to Aravaipa Canyon was a spiritual quest. That's a no-brainer if you've ever stepped foot in this 11-mile shrine of flora and fauna near Safford.
But to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the couple's journey, religious or otherwise, was a chance to make a quick buck under the nation-wide--and widely despised--Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.
That's not hard to believe, either, if you know anything about this bloated program, slyly launched at the behest of big recreation merchandisers back in 1996 and designed to get Americans accustomed to coughing up extra jack to use their own public lands.
Established as a trial program, fee demo is slated to die next year. And increasingly, Congress seems disinclined to renew it. Still, the cash-cow remains a favorite in the pro-business White House; under his 2004 budget plan, President Bush proposes actually raising the fees--and making some of them permanent.
This notion doesn't sit well with many folks, among them Lewis and Adams. And for refusing to pay $20, they face heavy fines and up to six months in the pokey. After many delays, the couple goes to court late this month.
Their stance is more philosophical than fiscal. "We considered our trip to Aravaipa a religious pursuit," says Adams, a Tucson psychotherapist. "We didn't do anything underhanded. In fact, the BLM wouldn't even have known we were there, if we hadn't written them a letter about our concerns with the fee demonstration program and left $3--a part of the fee we felt was justified for administrative costs."
Not surprisingly, BLM officials see things a bit differently.
"Money collected from the fee demo program is used for maintaining trailheads, restrooms and online reservation systems," says Tom Schnell, a natural resources specialist with the agency's Safford office. He says the BLM "has made a substantial investment" in Aravaipa.
Others such as Jon Orlando, state coordinator for the AZ No Fee Coalition, call the fees a blatant rip-off.
"It's also one of the most economically deplorable programs in terms of its efficiency," he says, citing a U.S. Forest Service study showing that federal agencies can spend more than half of their fee demo proceeds on simply administering the program.
Orlando claims the numbers reveal a deeper agenda. For example, he says the Forest Service saw only $20 million in net proceeds from the program in fiscal year 2001--a mere fraction of the agency's overall budget.
"Now why endure all this screaming and fighting and hollering over $20 million dollars?" Orlando says. "A lot of us believe it's simply because (the feds) want to privatize public lands."
He may be right, given the history of fee demo. The program was spearheaded in the mid-1990s by former Forest Service head Michael Dombeck, in cahoots with a group called the American Recreation Coalition. At the time, the ARC included such recreational heavies as the Walt Disney Co., National Ski Areas Association, Coleman Co. and Yamaha Motor Corp.
In a telling 1997 speech, then-forest chief Dombeck noted that Americans have traditionally viewed their public lands "as an amenity--something extra that we are privileged to enjoy.
"Fortunately," he said, "that's beginning to change."
But Dombeck's charge has slowed to a crawl as the public has increasingly turned against his program. In Congress, attempts to renew fee demo after next year have stalled. And locally, Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias plans to introduce a resolution in April calling on Congress to ditch the fees altogether.
According to his resolution, such fees reduce "the access to public land of low-income citizens, unjustly punishing them for their poverty." It also claims that Congress "has used the program as an excuse to cut funding for management of our public lands, thereby leaving them with less money than before the program began."
But even as opposition to the fees grow, increasing numbers of Tucsonans are becoming conditioned to shelling out cash to visit their public lands, whether it's $5 to park at Sabino Canyon or $5 to drive up Mount Lemmon. And costs quickly escalate for those planning overnight stays; camping on Mount Lemmon can run up to an additional $15. Likewise, the National Park Service now charges $6 for those wishing to camp at unimproved sites in the Rincon Mountains--in addition to the $6 it charges for using the parking lot.
Nationally, the Forest Service grossed $37 million last year from the fees, and the BLM also does pretty well, at least with Aravaipa. Beginning in 1984, visitors to the canyon were charged $1.50 a day per person, mostly to cover administrative costs. But when Aravaipa joined the fee program in 1999, that price tag jumped to $5.
For the canyon's protection, only 50 visitors are allowed each day. A quick calculation shows that, at full capacity, Aravaipa generates over $900,000 per year. Under fee demo guidelines, 80 percent of the proceeds are to remain where they're generated. As a result, the wilderness area ends up with more than $700,000 per year from fees.
Gaye Adams calls that sum excessive.
"They've historically charged a small amount to cover administrative costs," she says. "That's understandable, in light of protecting the environment, and dealing with a burgeoning population." But she labels the fee demo program "a whole different animal, part of a larger plan to privatize our significant public lands."
Sensitive to bad press, the land managers have sought to keep such protests quiet--which can likewise get expensive. Two years ago, four visitors to Mount Lemmon were cited after they refused to pay the $5 fee. The case was dismissed, based on a lack of proof that the visitors had actually driven up the mountain. However, the incident drew plenty of negative publicity, and the Forest Service paid a half-dozen of its staffers overtime to attend the court hearing.
Apparently, the BLM hoped to avoid a replay of that situation with Gaye Adams and Greg Lewis. According to Adams, BLM ranger Eric Richardson called her at home about a month after the camping trip she'd refused to pay full-price for.
The ranger "talked to me for about 45 minutes on the phone, trying to convince me to send in the $50 fine, and kind of threatened me," Adams says. "He said he would personally drive out from Safford to deliver me this citation."
Richardson says he simply offered to hand-deliver the ticket because he had other business in Tucson. He also said he talked to the couple prior to going to court, "because we wanted to give them ample opportunity to make the situation right. I gave (them) the benefit of the doubt."
But for their part, Lewis and Adams have little doubt that they're already in the right.
"The whole reason we objected to those fees, and refused to pay them," says Lewis, "is because we object to the whole program. We consider it an attempt, by the recreation industry, to control access to our public lands for profit. We shouldn't have to pay for using land that already belongs to us."