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New Forest Service Report Shows Sharp Decline In Visitors

New Forest Service Report Shows Sharp Decline In Visitors
Western Slope No Fee Coalition

A Forest Service report released July 23, 2009 shows that visitors are staying away from National Forests in droves, and that the declines began well before the current economic downturn. Nationwide, recreational visits are down 14% since 2004 and 18% since 2001. Every one of the Forest Service's nine Regions has taken a hit.

The newly issued report, based on surveys of forest visitors from 2003 through 2008, shows significant decreases in every part of the country. The Pacific Northwest forests saw the largest reduction, 34% since 2004, with the 20-state Northeast Region close behind, down 26% during the same period. The smallest decline of 4% was in the Southeast Region, which encompasses 13 states and Puerto Rico.

The report is the fourth issued by the National Visitor Use Monitoring office of the Forest Service since the agency began a systematic survey of National Forest visitation in 2000. Prior to that, visitation estimates were little more than wildly inflated guesses.

The reports have shown a steady decline, from 214.2 million visits in 2001 to 204.8 million in 2004, to 178.6 million in 2007, and now 175.6 million in 2008. The 18% decline since 2001 equates to 38.5 million fewer National Forest visits per year.

The report does not speculate on reasons for the decline. However, advocates for free public access to public lands point to the increasingly common fees charged to visitors as one reason for the falling visitation. According to Western Slope No-Fee Coalition President Kitty Benzar, "Fees were already driving many families away from public lands, even while times were good. The economic crisis we're facing now will exacerbate a very worrisome trend. As household budgets are cut to the bare bones, visiting a National Forest will be just another luxury item that can be done without."

Benzar says the declines are having a disproportionate impact on rural residents. "This is hitting rural areas from two directions," she said. "First, they often depend on tourism and anything that adds to travel costs slows that and hits their economies hard. Second, almost half of Forest visitors are locals living within 50 miles, and they are the folks least able to afford these access fees."

The end result, Benzar fears, is that both urban and rural kids will spend more time indoors playing video games because it costs too much to take the family camping, fishing, hiking, or even for a picnic in the woods.

A key finding of the report is that relatively few Forest visitors use constructed facilities such as swimming sites, specialized OHV trails, and visitor centers. Over 40% of visits involved no use of constructed sites at all. Of those that did, only Scenic Byways (usually state highways or county roads) and National Forest roads were used during more than 10% of visits. According to Benzar, this is an indication that the Forest Service needs to rethink how it allocates its appropriated funding. "Constructed facilities are expensive to build and maintain and yet they serve relatively few visitors," she noted. "Most visitors are very satisfied with minimal facilities, but too often their access is blocked by a fee to park at a trailhead or for a dispersed camping area."

Fees for day-use areas, scenic roads, trails, and general access to National Forests, as well as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies, were first imposed in 1996, under a program known as Fee Demo. That was repealed in late 2004 and replaced with a permanent fee program known as the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. Since the FLREA went into effect, over 260 additional sites have been put under fees, and existing fees have been raised at over 800 recreation sites.

A bipartisan bill to repeal the FLREA, S.868 The Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, with sponsorship by Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. The bill has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
-©2008 Western Slope No Fee Coalition




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