Why the Fee Demonstration Program Must End¶
By David Dittrich <email@example.com>
This opinion piece was first published online at speakeasy.net in June 1999. WildWilderness, an advocacy group established in Oregon in 1991, published a copy on their web site. I am reviving and republishing it on my own web site to educate the public in response to recent legislation in the House of Representatives (H.R. 621) attempting to sell off millions of acres of public lands to private sector resource extraction companies, etc. Rep. Jason Chaffits announced on February 2, 2017, that he would be withdrawing the bill. (See UPDATE: public rejects bill that would have sold off 3 million acres of public lands).
Copyright © June 1999 by David Dittrich, all rights reserved.
The fee demonstration program was authorized by Congress as part of the 1996 Interior Appropriations Act to allow four government agencies – the National Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service – to test new or increased user fees to help address needs unmet by the prior funding mechanism, U. S. Taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress under their existing authority. After a little over two years, Government Accounting Office (GAO) reports show the “success” of this program to be underwhelming, at best, and entirely unnecessary if these same agencies simply implemented longstanding calls for reform to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, made by the GAO.
The spark that lit the fire¶
On New Years day, 1999, my friend Doug Ingersoll flopped the December issue of Backcountry Magazine in my lap. Yes, it does have a Telemark boot review Doug wrote and wanted me to read, but he also pointed out an article by Andy Dappen about the fee demonstration program he said would “interest” me.
While I eagerly read about developments in telemark boot design, my blood began to boil when I read Andy’s article and thought of the hundreds of dollars I’d spent in National Parks and Forest Service land in the last three years, usually so I could hike for hours with views of clear-cut forests all around me (not a dollar of which came back to me in any way, but I paid for in more ways than one), having to pay extra to carry my tent up several thousand vertical feet to camp, and to top it off, having to pack out my own feces!
Andy’s article tells of a mountain top experience with a nameless fee boycotter, who passes along what he has learned of the fee demo. program. Much of this information can be found on the WildWilderness web site. The strongest message I took from his article was to learn more and take action. I plan on boycotting fees at every opportunity, but I also am using what I know to research this issue further, mostly using Government Accounting Office reports on the subject and the web sites of the agencies involved, and what I’ve found has only maintained the boiling point of my blood.
The Government Accounting Office (GAO)¶
The GAO was renamed the Government Accountability Office in 2004, years after this article was originally written. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_Accountability_Office for the history of this organization.
The GAO is the “investigative arm” of Congress. It is the agency responsible for examining issues dealing with the receipt and disbursement of public funds, auditing, evaluating, and making recommendations on changes to government programs that involve public funds.
If any agency knows of waste and mismanagement, it is the GAO. It does its analysis, produces reports, and gives testimony to Congressional committees.
The GAO publishes these reports, making them available to the general public for free (at least the first copy - subsequent copies are $2.00 each). You can order GAO reports over the phone by calling (202) 512-6000, or via a form on their web page http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/ordtab.pl. You can even get Adobe PDF file versions of some reports online at this same web site. In any case, use the document number, e.g., “GAO/RCED-99-7” when ordering.
Throughout this article, several GAO reports will be cited. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t, as I’ll show you) believe what an agency like the Forest Service tells you. You can get your own copy of these GAO reports and read for yourself what outside auditors have found, then make your own decisions.
You should start with the report GAO/RCED-99-7, “RECREATION FEES - Demonstration Fee Program Successful in Raising Revenues but Could Be Improved.” (1) It analyzes the fee demonstration program, and is the basis for most of what follows.
Where are fees collected?¶
Fees are collected at the four agencies listed in the following table. As can be seen, the largest percentage of visitors are to resources held by the Forest Service (71% of all visitors), which is responsible for nearly 1/3 of public lands. All tolled, 1.251 billion visitors were tallied in 1997.
Federal Land Management Agencies' Responsibilities Agency Acreage Vistors Lands Managed 376 park units, from large natural parks to small historic sites in 49 states, the Park Service 83 million (13%) 275 million (22%) District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 155 national forests and 20 Forest Service 192 million (30%) 885 million (71%) national grasslands in 44 states and Puerto Rico. BLM 864 million (42%) 61 million (5%) 139 resource areas in 28 states. 503 national wildlife refuges, 65 national fish hatcheries, and Fish and Wildlife other units in all Service 92 million (15%) 30 million (2%) 50 states, Puerto Rico, 3 territories, and 5 Pacific Island possessions.
The “success” of the fee demonstration program¶
GAO/RCED-99-7 reports (1, page 6) that numbers tallied by the four agencies appear to show no adverse affects on visits due to the fee demonstration program. It cites research performed by the four agencies that shows visitor reactions,
…generally support the fee demonstration program. For example, a 1997 Park Service survey at 11 national park units showed that 83% of the respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with the fees they paid or thought the fees were too low.
This opinion of widespread acceptance is echoed on the Forest Service’s own web page.
In fiscal year 1996, the last year before the demonstration program was implemented, the four agencies collected a total of about $93.3 million in fees from visitors. In fiscal year 1997, the four agencies generated a total of about $144.6 million in fee revenues, of which about $123.8 million was attributed to fees at demonstration sites. For fiscal year 1998, the agencies estimate that total fee revenues will increase to about $179.3 million, with about $159.8 million in revenues from fee demonstration sites.
So the fee demonstration program has most visitors satisfied, and has nearly doubled revenues in just two years! That does sound like success.
That is, if you stop there.
The details of this “success”¶
For example, some of the visitor surveys will not address the impact of fees on certain groups, such as those not visiting recreation sites, backcountry users, and low-income users. Therefore, the impact of the fee demonstration program on these groups is largely unknown.
It also states (1, page 75) that the surveys were only taken at a limited number of Park Service and Forest Service lands (which total just 43% of publicly held lands), but have research gaps, such as potential visitors who do not come to recreation sites, or those who drive off because of the new or increased fees. (It should be noted that these two agencies had 93% of all visitors in 1997, which is 1.16 billion out of the total 1.251 billion visitors.)
The “support” of the surveyed visitors also hinged on the fees being spent per Congress’ mandate that 80% of the revenues be spent at the site in which the fees were collected. Since there is significant inconsistency in the revenues generated and needs at each site, some sites collect over 5 times what they are able to spend on unmet needs, while other lesser visited sites don’t even come close to covering their unmet needs with their meager fee demo program revenues. The report states (1, page 54),
However, any change to the 80-percent requirement would have to be balanced against the need to maintain incentives at fee-collecting units and to maintain the support of the visitors.
This “support,” which seems slim and frail, also depends on those being surveyed not knowing about other facts, like how the revenue is spent, what the agencies are not telling visitors, and what other waste exists in these agencies. These are significant missing facts, as we’ll see in a moment.
Dissenting voices are being ignored¶
When these survey results support the fee demonstration program (however tenuously), these agencies brag about it. But when dissenting voices are raised, they are ignored. GAO/RCED-99-7 (1, page 86) says,
Some visitors to federal recreation sites under the demonstration program have voiced opposition to new or increased fees. For example, a Forest Service analysis of 528 comment cards found that about 26 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that the value of the recreation opportunities and services the visitors had experienced was at least equal to the fee they paid. In addition, 43 percent of the 420 people providing written comments on the cards made negative statements about the recreation fees, such as “the price is too high,” “this is double taxation,” or “I oppose the fees.” Similarly, an analysis of 484 pieces of correspondence received by the Park Service between July 1996 and September 1997 showed that 67 percent of respondents expressed some opposition to new fees. According to Park Service and Forest Service official, the surveys were not based on statistical sampling and, therefore, are not representative of all users. Comment cards and correspondence are more likely to be completed by those having a strong opinion on fees, especially those who are opposed to fees.
So if the survey cards support the Forest Service or Park Service, they are fine, even if just 1000 cards are analyzed (out of a visitor base of 1.16 billion, I don’t believe 1000 samples is statistically valid), but if someone comments on their own, they are not “statistically valid” and should be ignored.
So what about the revenues? In 1997, the first year of the fee demonstration program, the total gross revenue for all four agencies collecting fees was $123.8 million. In 1998, gross revenues were up to $159.8 million. The breakdown is like this: (1, pages 36-43)
Fee demonstration program revenues by agency Agency Amount Percent BLM $3.2 million 2.0% Fish and Wildlife Service $3.4 million 2.1% Forest Service $17.7 million 11.1% Park Service $135.5 million 84.8%
The flip side of revenue is expenditures. What comes in goes out, but all we need to look at closely here is the cost of collection, which is the overhead it takes to collect the fees. What is left is spent on the things that those people surveyed thought was justified by the fees (like improving services, facilities, etc.)
By agency, the cost of collection (and resulting actual net revenue) breaks down like this:
Net revenues after deducting cost of fee collection Agency Gross revenue Cost of Percent Net revenue collection BLM $3.2 million NA NA NA Fish and Wildlife $3.4 million $2.41 million 71% $999,000 Service Forest Service $17.7 million $3.38 million 19.1% $14.32 million Park Service $135.5 million $46.75 million 34.5% $88.75 million Total $159.8 million $47.46 million 29.7% $112.34 million
So as you can see, on average 1/3 of every dollar collected goes to the act of collecting the fees, leaving just $112.34 million dollars to be spent on the things the fee demonstration program was intended to pay for.
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 amended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to authorize the Forest Service to withhold up to 15 percent of recreation fees to recover fee collection activities.
So what Congress decided was a reasonable percentage (15%) for fee collection in 1993, is 4% less than what the Forest Service is actually now paying for fee collection under the fee demonstration program, and half as much as the average for all four agencies (1/3 of BLM’s cost, which is the majority of what they collect!)
A running start¶
So the year after the fee demonstration program was enacted, it brought in new revenues of $123.8 million dollars. That’s great! But weren’t the Parks and Forest service collecting fees before the demonstration program? You bet.
In fiscal year 1996, the last year before the demonstration program was implemented, the four agencies collected a total of about $93.3 million in fees from visitors. In fiscal year 1997, the four agencies generated a total of about $144.6 million in fee revenues, of which about $123.8 million was attributed to fees at demonstration sites…
Each agency collected fees prior to the demonstration program, and as sites with existing fees were convereted to demonstration sites, much of the agencies’ fee revenues have now been included in the demonstration. As a result, much of the demonstration fee revenues collected in fiscal year 1997 and beyond came frmo sites where fees were collected prior to the demonstration. (Some fees continue to be collected outside the demonstration program – about half at Park Service sites that were not included in the 100 sites authorized under the demonstration program.
So this huge new revenue stream is in reality mostly the old revenue stream being converted to the demonstration, with roughly $50 million dollars of new money actually coming into the four agencies the first year of the demonstration program, not $123.8 million as they claim. The agencies are thus overstating the benefit of the program on their revenues.
It gets worse¶
If 1/3 of every dollar collected going to the cost of collection is not bad enough, the Forest Service alone wastes, or misses out on revenues in a way that dwarfs the entire fee demonstration program in all four agencies! And both the Forest Service and BLM have been wasting and missing out on revenues for decades, and has been told so by the GAO many, many, many times.
The Forest Service and BLM use the same fee schedule for rights-of-way. In March 1995, the Department of Interior’s Inspector General issues a report which found that BLM’s fee system did not collect fair market value for rights-of-way. In the report, the Inspector General estimated that BLM could be losing as much as $49 million (net present value) during the terms of the current rights-of-way by charging less than fair market value. At the time of the report, the agency had authorized 30,600 rights-of-way subject to rental payments.
Since these leases are mostly either one-time perpetual leases, or 30 year leases, this means the BLM could be losing as much as $1.63 million dollars per year – half as much as they collect in total on the fee demonstration program, and almost twice what they net after cost of collection! So much for BLM needing the fee demonstration program revenues.
The same report (3, page 14) shows that if the Forest Service stopped mailing a bill out every year over the term of 30 years for the 5,600 rights-of-way permits it grants, and instead bill just once, it would save $6.7 million dollars over the life of these leases, or about $223,000 per year. That equals 23% of the net gain made by the BLM’s fee collection proceeds.
If you look on the Forest Service’s own web site, they seem to indicate they are restricted by Congress as to what they can charge:
Fees for timber, mining, and grazing are set by Congress. The Forest Service is not free to charge more than what Congress allows the Agency to charge for these activities.
To the contrary, the GAO has repeatedly criticized the Forest Service for not charging enough for rights-of-way, mining, and grazing fees.
GAO/RCED-99-81, “FOREST SERVICE - Barriers to and Opportunities for Generating Revenue,” criticizes the Forest Service for missing out on revenues:
(4, page 1) Moreover, when Congress has provided the Forest Service with the authority to obtain fair market value for certain uses, such as timber, resort lodges, private recreational cabins, and oil and gas pipelines, or to recover costs for services, such as reviewing and processing special-use permit applications, the agency often has not done so. As a result, the Forest Service foregoes at least $50 million in revenue annually. …
(4, page 6) On the basis of our work, we offer the following observations on the Forest Services ongoing efforts to secure alternative sources of revenue. First, sustained oversight by the Congress will be needed to ensure that the agency maximizes revenue under existing legislative authorities. For instance, according to Forest Service officials, the agency is evaluating whether to issue regulations to allow managers to charge fees to recover their costs to review and process special use permit applications. However, the Agency has been authorized by the Congress to recover these costs since 1952 and has twice in the past 12 years developed, but not finalized, draft regulations to implement the authority. According to Forest Service headquarters officials, both times, staff assigned to develop and publish the regulations were reassigned to other higher-priority tasks. As a result, the agency estimates that it foregoes $5 million to $7 million annually.
For example, according to a November 1995 internal Forest Service report, inefficiencies within the agency’s decision-making process cost up to $100 million a year at the project level alone. These costs are not borne by the Forest Service, but by the American taxpayer, since the agency accomplishes fewer objectives with its yearly appropriations.
And the Forest Service is not alone in waste, fraud, and abuse. GAO/RCED-99-101, “RECREATION FEES - Demonstration Has Increased Revenues, but Impact on Park Service Backlog is Uncertain, (8, page 7) states,
In 1997, this Subcommittee [on Interior and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives] and others heavily criticized the Park Service because of spending abuses involving an outhouse costing over $300,000 at one park and employee residences costing over $500,000 at another. In response to these criticisms, and in order to avoid similar abuses in the future, the Park Service and the Department of the Interior are paying particularly close attention to how individual park units are using the revenues provided by the demonstration fee program.
Why not fix things?¶
The Forest Service has a distinct lack of priority in solving these problems, and has lacked priorities for decades.
Many of the Forest Service officials we talked with – both in headquarters and in the forests – acknowledged that the relatively small size of [the recreation special-use permit] program has translated into little recognition of priority being given to it. Despite the 26,000 existing permits, the $37 million in annual fee revenue, and about 3,250 new permit applications or modifications each year, the recreation special-use program is small compared with the Forest Service’s timber program. In comparison, the agency’s timber program generates approximately $911 million in sales receipts.
Evidence of the low priority for this program at the national level can be seen in the lack of resources dedicated to improve known program weaknesses. As a result, these weaknesses have not been addressed. For example, as far back as 1982 we and others have criticized the Forest Service’s GRFS for obtaining fees that are lower than fair market value. Furthermore, many of the forest officials we contacted during this review questioned the ability of GRFS to obtain fair market value, particularly in light of higher fees charged for commercial activities on state lands. To date, GRFS remains unchanged.
Another example of the low priority given to this program is the agency’s failure to develop needed cost recovery regulations. Even though the Forest Service has had the authority to recover costs since 1952, it has not developed the needed regulations to do so. At least two times since the IOAA was enacted in 1952, the Forest Service developed draft regulations for recovering costs for new permit applications. These efforts occurred in 1987 and 1995. Neither time were the draft regulations finalized or published because, according to the Forest Service headquarters officials, the staff resources assigned to develop and publish the regulations were diverted to other higher-priority tasks. Forest Service officials could not provide us with an explanation as to why no initiative was taken to develop regulations between 1952 and 1987.
After reviewing the GAO draft report [GAO/RCED-98-58], we do not believe it is necessary to conduct a separate meeting to present our comments. The Forest Service is in agreement with the conclusions and recommendations set forth in the report. …
The GAO material presented on Forest Service revenue generation, costs, and accountability is largely summarized from previous GAO reports which we have already provided comments. We believe to have made some progress in the areas of revenue generation, such as recreation fees under the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, cost reduction through significant personnel reductions, and procedural changes to improve accountability…
And even thought the timber sales program dwarfs the smaller fee revenue programs, it is no longer a stellar example of Forest Service performance itself. GAO/RCED-98-258, “FOREST SERVICE: Better Procedures and Oversight Needed to Address Indirect Expenditures,” (9, page 2), states:
In fiscal year 1996, the Forest Service reported that, for the first time, the expenses associated with preparing and administering timber sales exceeded the receipts generated by the sale of the timber.
Part of this is due to the way the Forest Service accounts for the costs of putting in roads in forest areas that are to be logged commercially. Testimony given to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, GAO/AIMD-99-48R, “FOREST SERVICE: Accounting Treatment of Roadbed Costs,” (10, page 1) states:
As a result of the Forest Service’s interpretation of [federal accounting standards], it reported an additional $53.9 million in costs for its timber sales program, which increased the program’s fiscal year 1997 loss to a reported $89 million.
As bad as it gets¶
The situation with the Forest Service has gone on so long, the GAO has finally made their financial management a “high-risk” area of concern. Their January 1999 report to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives, GAO/OCG-99-2 (6) reports that the inefficiency and waste within the Forest Service continues:
Over the last decade, we have reported that inefficiency and waste throughout the Forest Service’s operations and organization have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, the Forest Service has often not obtained fair market value for goods or recovered costs for services as permitted under federal law and has not always responded to reduce or contain costs pursuant to congressional request. The agency’s financial statements are generally unreliable, and significant assets and expenditures cannot be accurately accounted for. Because the Forest Service has struggled for years to improve the reliability of its financial statement without success, we are now designating the Forest Service’s financial management a high-risk area. Furthermore, the Forest Service’s weak contracting practices have exposed appropriated dollars to an increased risk of fraud, waste, and abuse. These and other findings have led us, USDA’s Inspector General, and Forest Service task forces to make numerous recommendations to improve performance. We testified on March 29, 1998, that the Forest Service had not acted on some of these recommendations, had studied and re-studied others without implementing them, and has left the implementation of others to the discretion of its independent and autonomous regional offices and forests, with mixed results.
To improve is operational efficiency and effectiveness, the Forest Service must be accountable for its financial activities and performance. While the agency has made progress in recent years, it is still years away from achieving financial accountability and possibly a decade or more away from being accountable for its performance. Specifically, the Forest Service has identified the actions required to correct known accounting and financial reporting deficiencies and has established a schedule to attain financial accountability within the next few years. In addition, the agency has taken an important first step toward becoming accountable for its performance by making clear its overriding mission and funding priority, consistent with its existing legislative framework, has shifted from producing goods and services to maintaining and restoring the health of the lands entrusted. However, it has not identified the actions required to correct decades-old problems with its data and reporting, addressed new challenges resulting from its changed priorities, or established a schedule to achieve accountability for its performance by a certain date. Strong leadership within the agency and sustained oversight by the Congress will be needed to ensure that the actions required to hold the Forest Service accountable for its performance are identified and that it adheres to schedules to achieve both performance and financial accountability.
With just a few fixes¶
So let’s total up just the few instances cited above of waste and missed revenues that the GAO has been telling BLM and the Forest Service to take care of for years.
Agency Area of loss Amount per year BLM Undercharging for $1.63 million rights-of-way Forest Service Billing costs for $223,000 rights-of-way leases Forest Service Missed recovered costs $50 million Forest Service Inefficiency at the $100 million project level Forest Service Loss on timber sales $89 million program Total $240 million
As is very clear, the Forest Service alone wastes, or misses out on collecting, over two times as much money as the entire net revenue of $112.34 million generated by all four agencies – Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife Service – and has been doing so despite repeated GAO calls for them to change.
Summing it up¶
The Forest Service alone wastes, or misses out on revenues, annually an amount that far exceeds the entire gross revenues of $159 million the fee demonstration program brought in in 1997 from all four agencies, well over twice the total net revenues of $112 million. Waste, fraud, and abuse at the Park Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife Service simply make the fee demonstration program revenues even less significant.
The Forest Service and Park Service ignore the dissenting voices of those who disapprove of the fee demonstration program, and only cite to Congress and the public the opinions of a scattered minority of the tax paying public who visit limited sites and chose to respond to surveys prepared by the agencies themselves. The “public support” is tenuous, at best, and will evaporate once the public learns the truth about this program.
The Forest Service brags about the fee demonstration program revenues being a sign of “progress”, at the same time they admit that they pay little attention to programs such as this, in favor of significantly larger programs, such as timber sales ($17.7 million in fee demonstration program revenues, compared with $911 million for timber sales). This would not be as sad as it is, had the Forest Service not reported in 1996 that it had, for the first time, spent more on its timber sales program than it received from sales of that timber.
The BLM and Forest Service have been told by the GAO for more than a decade what to do to solve these problems. The Forest Service (and its parent, the Department of Agriculture) have repeatedly ignored these recommendations, with the result that the Forest Service’s financial management was finally, in January of 1999, designated by the GAO a “high-risk” area, and Congress urged to give it more scrutiny and tighter oversight.
To continue to allow the Forest Service to administer programs like the fee demonstration program – at their own admission – diverts resources from other areas within the agency and will only add to the time it takes to deal with other, much larger issues (such as the reforms that GAO has been recommending for years). If they were to deal with these larger issues, there would be no need for the much smaller revenues brought in by the fee demonstration program.
Based on this, it is clear that the continuation of the fee demonstration program simply furthers the double-taxation of users of national land resources, diverts resources from agencies that are rife with waste and inefficiency, and hinders their main mission, which is the stewardship of the national resources they oversee.
I can no longer, in good conscience, participate in supporting the fee demonstration program and will boycott the fees at every opportunity to register my protest. It is time to end the fee demonstration program, once and for all.
For more on the fee demonstration program, visit http://www.wildwilderness.org/
GAO/RCED-99-7, “RECREATION FEES - Demonstration Fee Program Successful in Raising Revenues but Could Be Improved,” November 1998
GAO/RCED-97-16, “U.S. FOREST SERVICE - Fees for Recreation Special-Use Permits Do Not Reflect Fair Market Value”
GAO/RCED-96-84, “U.S. FOREST SERVICE - Fee System for Rights-of-Way Program Needs Revision,” April 1996
GAO/RCED-99-81, “FOREST SERVICE - Barriers to and Opportunities for Generating Revenue,” February 1999
GAO/RCED-97-223, “THE RESULTS ACT - Observations on the Forest Service’s May 1997 Draft Plan,” July 1997
GAO/OCG-99-2, “Major Management Challenges and Program Risks - Department of Agriculture,” January 1999
GAO/RCED-98-58, “FOREST SERVICE - Barriers to Generating Revenue or Reducing Costs,” February 1998
GAO/RCED-99-101, “RECREATION FEES - Demonstration Has Increased Revenues, but Impact on Park Service Backlog is Uncertain,” March 1999
GAO/RCED-98-258, “FOREST SERVICE: Better Procedures and Oversight Needed to Address Indirect Expenditures,” April, 1998
GAO/AIMD-99-48R, “FOREST SERVICE: Accounting Treatment of Roadbed Costs,” January 1999
All of the above can be ordered online from http://www.gao.gov/
Dedicated to my father, William J. Dittrich, who spent a large percentage of his life working to develop parks and recreational activities in Whatcom County, and asked me on our last trip together, “So what are you going to do to benefit society?”
A Post Script¶
I was flying back from Washington, DC, a few years after I wrote this article and found myself seated next to someone who was having a fairly loud conversation with a couple people seated across the aisle from us. They were talking about a government conference they had just attended where a prominent lobbyist for the recreational vehicle industry had been speaking. They talked about how this person was throwing around their weight, going off script in his remarks, and saying things that kind of shocked them at how blatantly his organization was promoting the RV industry.
After they finished their conversation, I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation. It turned out she was the Pacific Northwest Regional Director of Recreation, Lands, and Minerals for the U.S. Forest Service. I would have never been able to get an opportunity to talk to her had I tried to call her office, but she was going to be sitting next to me for the next few hours, so I struck up a polite conversation with her.
I calmly asked question after question about the facts I had learned (and have laid out above) regarding the cost of collection, the undercharging for land use rights, the inability of the Forest Service to accurately track expenditures and performance on trail maintenance contracts… She told me she did not know about any of the details I was presenting to her, and didn’t have much of a response to the issues I was laying out. She said that she would like to review my article, have a chance to look into the issues, and get back to me. She gave me her business card so I could follow up with her.
She asked me questions like, “What do you do?”, “How do you know so much about this?”, and “Why do you care so much about this to spend that much of your free time?” I told her what I did, that I use GAO reports as part of my research into computer security policies, and that my father was a long-standing advocate for public parks, forest preservation, air pollution control, and public service. I told her I care about this so much, because I frequent the outdoors, value trails, parks, and wilderness areas, and have had experiences like encoutering snow mobilers leaving trash in the middle of the glacier on Mt. Baker after they were done high-pointing on the glacier walls (and packing up their waste myself as I skied down to dispose of it).
She then asked me if I worked for Wild Wilderness (the advocacy group that is mentioned in this article). I told her no, but that they had asked, and I had granted permission, for them to publish a copy of my article on their web site. She then said, “You do know that the conversation I was having earlier was a private conversation, right?” That ended our conversation. I followed up with her by sending my article and trying to call her office a couple of times. She never replied to any of my emails or calls.
It is a bit ironic, in hindsight, that it was the same Bush administration she worked for who renamed the GAO the Government Accountability Office. The issues I laid out, and the conversation I had with her, were entirely about the government being accountable and balancing public interest with business interest. It (the government) wasn’t accountable, and she wasn’t accountable. And industry profited and trail fees became permanant law (despite being a failure as a “demonstration program”). I later wished I had the last word saying something like, “You do know that an airplane is not a private venue in which to openly discuss regulatory capture by lobbyists, right?” and perhaps that I had told this story right away to try to get more public support to stop the trail fee law. I guess I’m too polite (or is that “too politically correct”) for my own and for the public’s good.