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USFS proposes changes to pass discount policy

A U.S. Forest Service (USFS) press release dated Dec. 3 invites public comment on a proposed modification to the policy governing acceptance of lifetime Interagency Passes at concession-operated campgrounds and day-use recreation sites. If adopted, the change will dramatically reduce discounts now afforded elder and permanently disabled visitors to national forests and grasslands.

While the agency statement touts the new plan as one that would provide coordination with concessionaires and promote sustainable operations, it fails to mention the intended reduction of a 50-percent Senior and Access (permanent disability) pass-holder discount at Forest Service campgrounds and day-use sites to a more modest 10 percent discount. The change will similarly affect Golden Age and Golden Access pass holders.

For the record, Interagency Senior and Access passes provide discounts to a qualified pass holder and three other persons, regardless of relationship. Golden Age and Golden Access passes allow reduced-cost access to the pass holder, spouse and all children.

In the press release, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell is quoted as saying, “The Forest Service is committed to ensuring that the American public can continue to fully enjoy the recreation opportunities on National Forests and Grasslands, and passes and discounts at concession operated campgrounds and day use sites are an important part of achieving this goal. To this end, the Forest Service is inviting comments on proposed changes to pass-related discounts that are designed (to) ensure that all Americans can continue to enjoy our Natural Forests and Grasslands while protecting the viability of the small businesses providing the important concession services our visitors rely upon.”

According to a notice in the Dec. 1 Federal Register, the new Forest Service policy would replace the half-price rule that has been in place since the mid-1960s with the 10-percent discount. It would also require fees of Senior and Access pass holders at national forest day-use sites currently covered by passes.

For now, seniors aged 62 and older pay a one-time $10 fee for a lifetime pass. Lifetime passes for the permanently-disabled are free. Together, both passes account for more than 78 percent of all pass sales. The proposed change will apply to campgrounds operated by private concessionaires, or approximately 50 percent of all national forest camping capacity and 82 percent of campsites subject to reservations.

Some 30 years ago, the Forest Service operated virtually all its national forest campgrounds and day-use sites, but since, the concessionaire program has moved from small “mom-and pop” businesses to larger programs operated by a few large corporations.

In 2005, the Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) became law, which still offered lifetime passes to seniors and the disabled, but no longer required the 50-percent discount. However, the Forest Service continued the discount as a matter of policy, and insisted concessionaires do the same.

Since, concessionaires have collectively issued the following complaints:

• The REA doesn’t require a 50-percent discount, only the USFS does.

• The discount is too steep.

• The 50-percent discount isn’t negotiable and can’t be used as a marketing tool to encourage off-peak use.

• As the baby-boomer generation ages, too many people are becoming eligible for the discount.

• Prices to other campers must be increased to cover the discounts given to lifetime pass holders.

According to Western Slope No-Fee Coalition President Kitty Benzar, the proposed change is the latest in a long series of policy decisions that have transformed recreation on public lands from a public benefit into a market commodity.

“Until 1997, when the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program was implemented,” Benzar said in a recent coalition press release, “it was government policy that public lands were to be available equally to all Americans, with modest fees only for a few highly developed sites and for entrance to National Parks. They were one of the benefits we enjoyed as citizens and all supported with our tax dollars. Since then, there has been a systematic policy shift. Public lands are now expected to pay their own way in access fees.”

Benzar encouraged those opposed to the change to submit comments to the Forest Service and congressional delegations. The Forest Service will accept comments until Feb. 1, 2010, at www.regulations.gov (search for Notice ID FS-2009-0001). Congressional contact information is available at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov.

Written comments may also be submitted by mail to: U.S. Forest Service, attn: Carolyn Holbrook, Recreation and Heritage Resources Staff, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Stop 1125, Washington, DC 20250-1125.

chuck@pagosasun.com