Wildfires Burning Through Park Fees

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Trees aren’t the only green things that wildfires are burning through these days. They’re also toasting your money.

An article in Friday’s New York Times links the surge in new user fees at national forests and wilderness areas to the mounting cost of fighting wildfires.

Anybody who hiked last summer in Montana, Idaho, and even parts of Georgia and Minnesota knows that 2007 was an especially charred year. In fact, the last two wildfire seasons rank as the most severe—in terms of acreage burned—in the Lower 48 since 1960. And all of those flames are putting the squeeze on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budgets, according to the article.

“Firefighting costs went from 20 percent of the overall agency (U.S. Forest Service) budget to 47 percent,” said Dave Bull, superintendent of the Bitterroot National Forest in Hamilton, Montana.

As a result, land managers are raising fees, and adding new ones, to pump up their revenues. Hikers around the nation are already paying more to access trailhead parking lots, scenic overlooks, and public facilities. One example cited in the article is the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, a state road west of Denver that switchbacks to near the summit of 14,258-foot Mt. Evans. Starting last summer, drivers who stopped anywhere along the 14-mile road were required by rangers to pay $10 fee or face a $50 fine. Records quoted in the article show that the Forest Service raised $60 million in fees in 2007, nearly twice as much as it gathered in 2000. Similarly, the BLM, the nation’s largest landowner, collected $14 million last year, up from $7 million seven years ago.

What do these new and expanded fees mean for backpackers? Formerly free day-hikes at your local national forest might set you back a fiver. And you’re pre-hike routine will likely involve stuffing crumpled up dollar bills into tiny pay slots, just like you do when paying for parking at the airport or train station.

Still, the increased fees are not escaping the attention of recreation groups, or even members of Congress. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) has introduced a bill to repeal the authority of the Forest Service and BLM to institute many of the new fees, calling the additional charges “double taxation.”

If this debate over fees and fines makes you want to escape to a trail, be sure to check out the May 2008 issue of Backpacker for tips on how to hike safely in recently burned zones.

-Jason Stevenson