EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- Third-generation Oregonian Mary Bentsen doesn't mince words in describing how she feels about the growing use of recreation fees on public lands.
''I think it's the worst thing that's happened to anyone who appreciates the outdoors in Oregon,'' said Bentsen, a Eugene resident and avid hiker.
She refuses to buy the federal Northwest Forest Pass now required at hundreds of national forest trailheads, picnic areas, boat launches, rustic camp sites and visitor centers around the state.
Another active hiker, Zane Smith, has the opposite view of the 5-year-old program. Smith believes it's a great way to supplement tax dollars devoted to maintaining recreation areas and hopes to see it spread to more places managed by federal and state agencies.
''I'm a supporter of the principle of some payment for activities that require some degree of service,'' said Smith, a former national director of recreation and wilderness for the U.S. Forest Service. ''I don't buy the argument that because we own these lands, we shouldn't have to pay to use them.''
Like it or hate it, ''pay to play'' is here to stay at least for a few more years. Congress recently extended the ''fee demonstration project'' through September 2004, the third time it has been continued.
Lawmakers also lifted a cap on the number of sites where fees can be charged, freeing the Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to designate thousands of new toll areas across the country.
The agencies had seen their budgets shrink in recent years while recreational use of their lands climbed. The fees have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to restore ecosystems and maintain trails, parking lots, boat ramps, restrooms, visitor centers and other amenities.
Eighty percent of the money is required to be spent on the park or in the forest where it's collected.
But confusion about multiple passes and fees now in use and complaints over how the money is divided among recreation areas continue to dog the program. Both problems were recently raised in a report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Officials overseeing the program said they've done a lot to streamline how the fees work and continue to make improvements.
''We're trying to reduce the confusion and the feeling that people are being asked to pay every time they stop here or there,'' said Jocelyn Biro, Northwest fee program coordinator for the Forest Service.
But critics keep blasting the fees as flawed and unfair and say their ranks grow with each new recreation area added to the list of sites where fees are charged.
''People really don't oppose the program until they've had exposure to it,'' said Scott Silver of the Bend-based group Wild Wilderness, a leading opponent of recreation fees.
The Forest Service, Silver said, knows ''people don't like to be nickel-and-dimed'' with multiple fees and especially don't like having to pay just to take a walk on public lands and watch the sunset, he said.
A coalition of environmental and recreation groups is trying to kill the program by battling in federal court as well as on Capitol Hill.
In a key legal test of the recreation fees, a Eugene woman who contested her $50 citation for failing to buy a Northwest Forest Pass won a partial victory last month.
Leeanne Siart, a biologist with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, received the ticket a year ago when she hiked into the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area between Florence and Coos Bay.
''There was an armed law enforcement officer waiting for me at my car,'' said Siart, who believes a pilot program shouldn't carry the weight of enforcement. ''It's pretty ridiculous that we're charged to use our own public land.''
In a ruling that hinged on semantics, U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin in Eugene found that the Forest Service had charged fees at far more places than permitted under the 1996 law establishing the experimental program.
Coffin, who waived Siart's fine, concluded that Congress intended the ''100 fee projects'' cited in the law to mean only 100 sites where fees could be charged, not 100 distinct groupings, each including dozens or even hundreds of locations.
The Northwest Forest Pass, for instance, is required at about 1,350 places in Oregon and Washington but is considered one fee project, the judge noted.
The number became a moot point when Congress removed the 100-project limit last fall.
As for those who paid fees and fines in the past, it's unclear what the ruling means. There are rumors of a class-action civil lawsuit, but the opportunity to contest most of those fines may have passed.
In any case, the government may not risk letting the ruling stand; the U.S. attorney's office in Eugene has told the court it plans to appeal the decision.
Siart and her lawyer, Lauren Regan of Eugene, were hoping Coffin would declare that the fees didn't apply to people visiting a forest or park for reasons other than recreation. Siart said she was there to do research on the Western snowy plover, a small threatened shorebird. But Coffin decided there's no way to determine who is recreating and who isn't.
A bigger case is coming to a head in Durango, Colo., where three dozen environmentalists and off-road vehicle users staged a joint protest at a fee site to invite citations. The group is fighting the constitutionality of the fines, arguing that the First Amendment allows people to assemble on public land free of charge.
''With each case, we learn more about the statute. We discover new Achilles' heels,'' said Regan, who's advising lawyers in the Colorado suit.
Silver claims the federal government and corporate recreation lobby are using the fees to transform recreation from ''an undeveloped opportunity to a developed commodity.''
''The Forest Service and BLM have stopped looking at recreation as something that people do,'' he said, ''and started looking at it as a resource they can optimize and provide to paying customers.''
Oregon's five U.S. representatives are on record opposing the fees. So are the Legislature, the Jackson and Josephine county boards of commissioners, and more than 230 conservation and recreation groups nationwide.
''The movement is growing, not shrinking,'' Silver said.
The Forest Service relies on thousands of volunteers to help maintain trails and perform other services in recreation areas. This, coupled with the fees visitors pay, offsets the traditionally low level of funding for recreation on public lands, officials argue.
If the fee program were to abruptly end with no replacement revenue from federal coffers, so would many of the hiking and other outdoor opportunities the public has come to expect, said Julie Cox, recreation spokeswoman for the Willamette National Forest.
Money from the program also is used to improve safety and law enforcement patrols in areas where land managers have encountered trouble.
Smith, who was Willamette forest supervisor in the 1970s, said he'd like to see the passes made more universal so that someone who buys a Northwest pass could use it in national forests elsewhere, or on lands overseen by other agencies.
To an extent, that's already happening. The 13 Forest Service fee projects in Oregon and Washington were cut to eight, with most sites consolidated under a single pass, in response to public outrage over multiple fees.
North Cascades National Park in Washington accepts the Northwest Forest Pass, for example, and a multiagency pass is valid at state, Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service sites along the Oregon Coast.
The government also is studying the idea of creating a national pass to cover all federal lands.
Bentsen, a member of The Obsidians hiking group, said the last thing she wants to see is more tollgates.
''It really makes me very sad when I see fee stations all up and down our coast,'' she said.
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