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Empire Editorial: New user fee shifts Tongass funding to where it's needed

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

A new fee for users of the Tongass National Forest has drawn a predictable round of criticism for a predictable reason: People want government services, but they don't want to pay for them.

The fee, however, will help certain businesses that operate in the Tongass, and the financial burden won't fall on local residents. The new charge is to clients of guide-outfitter businesses and will bring in some $600,000 to the Tongass each year.

That money will feed the U.S. Forest Service permitting program that has been so starved for funding it hasn't been able to keep up with the growing number of tours and guided trips in the country's largest national forest. Special-use permits in the Tongass have shot up 300 percent in the last 12 years, but these permits have often been delayed because of the program's chronic underfunding.

Some outfitters have tried to expand their offerings to visitors but haven't been able to get approval for different kinds of trips because agency officials had no time to review new proposals.

The new funding for the Tongass is especially needed because of the transition in recent years from logging to tourism. The Forest Service spends about $6 million on its recreation programs, compared to $22 million for the declining logging industry.

Some have blasted the new fees because they think there shouldn't be charges for the use of public lands. Rep. Jim Elkins, R-Ketchikan, sponsored a House resolution that called for the elimination of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which included the guider-outfitter fee. Elkins opposed the act because, he said, it placed an undue burden on rural residents and those surrounded by federal lands. The Alaska House of Representatives approved Elkins' resolution.

But the beauty of this new client fee in the Tongass is that it does not affect Southeast Alaska residents who want to use the forest for hunting, hiking or other recreation. Instead the fee targets commercial guiding ventures that are making money off of public lands. It is only fitting that businesses reaping income from public lands pay for the program that serves it.

Another plus for the fee program is that its revenue goes directly to the Tongass, rather than to Washington, D.C., where revenue from similar fees went in the past.

As tourism takes over as the dominant industry on the Tongass, this fee is badly needed to cover administrative costs of the Forest Service. Alaskans should be pleased the fee will have little effect on them, unless they happen to be guides or outfitters - in which case it could make their lives easier by speeding up the permitting process.



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