Feds dismiss case; recreation fee showdown averted
By Eric Brazil
OF THE SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER STAFF
Larry Auxter was so offended to be cited by a U.S. Forest Service ranger he met atop Mount Shasta on Oct. 6 for not paying a $15 fee to climb the peak that he decided exactly when he'd pay it: when hell freezes over.
Auxter, 45, an auto mechanic and Mount Shasta planning commissioner, was primed for a showdown in federal court on Tuesday. But to his amazement, the Forest Service dismissed the case against him Friday.
"I feel a little disappointed. I've got a kazillion hours invested in this," said Auxter, who was prepared to present the court with a petition bearing signatures of 2,600 Shasta and Trinity county residents supporting him. "But the letter (of dismissal) said 'in the interest of justice,' and I like that."
Had the trial been held as scheduled before U.S. Magistrate Craig Kellison, it would have been a test case for the Forest Service's controversial recreational fee demonstration or adventure pass program.
The program, instituted in 1996 as an experimental revenue-raising tool to improve recreational facilities and services in the national forests, has kicked off a furious backlash among backpackers and other wilderness users. And while it is to expire in 2 001, legislation has been introduced in Congress to terminate it.
Increased fees at federal recreation areas have almost doubled revenues, from $93 million in fiscal 1996 to $179 million in fiscal 1998, according to a General Accounting Office study.
Fees for the demonstration program range from $2 to $5 for one- to three-day passes up to $35 for an annual adventure pass. Ninety-five percent of the money raised from fees is used in the area where it was collected.
Steve Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, one of several environmental organizations that have taken up arms against the program, said the bedrock complaint against it is that it turns the wilderness experience into a commodity.
"It's part of a Forest Service paradigm shift, turning raw nature into value-added products," Silver said. "The same authority that allows them to charge a fee for a hiking permit will let them make us pay for every kind of recreational opportunity. Hikin g is just the test balloon."
The Sierra Club is among the program's opponents. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Vicky Hoover, who chairs the club's California-Nevada Wilderness Committee. "The more damaging implication is its trend promoting a corporate takeover of nature.
Regional Forest Service spokesman Matt Matthes said, "We understand that people are upset that they're paying for something they got for free before. But our recreational facilities and maintenance of trails were deteriorating markedly... We had no altern ative but to go to some, sort of recreational fee program.