JUNEAU (AP) -- Hundreds of thousands of dollars in user fees collected for the first time by Alaska's two national forests have federal officials beaming over the improvements the money will bring.
But they're cautiously monitoring the opposition from some visitors who object to the extra charges.
The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program was established as a way for public land managers to bring in more money during difficult times. Congress approved it as a three-year pilot program in 1996 and extended it in 1999 to Sept. 30, 2001.
Under the program, federal land agencies can charge fees at a list of approved sites -- campgrounds, trails, visitor centers. They channel the money directly back to their regions.
The Chugach and Tongass national forests started the program in 1999 and brought in $773,500, said Don Fisher, Alaska regional director for the U.S. Forest Service.
''The real advantage is the money stays right here,'' said Fisher, who is based in Juneau.
''The emphasis is on enhancements. We extended hours, hired interpreters, improved campgrounds and added a telescope at Pack Creek (on Admiralty Island) so people could watch the bears.''
The program, however, has generated protests in many Western states, where some forests used the fee program to charge for parking on forest land.
Opponents contend the fees are unfair to low-income visitors, that they're offensive because they make people pay for a walk in the woods, and that they turn wild places into a product for sale. Others object to any fees for using federal land.
''In Alaska, we've been spared fees charged at trail heads,'' said Cliff Eames, a public lands specialist with the Anchorage-based Alaska Center for the Environment. ''But the general concern is commercializing the forest. We want them to remain places that provide natural opportunities, not commercial opportunities.''
Scott Silver, director of Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore., has led much of the opposition to the fee program and argues that the fees have sparked a disturbing trend.
''The issue is the Forest Service is starting to look at us as customers and look at what we do -- ski, hike, hunt -- as products that can be sold to us,'' Silver said in a telephone interview with the Anchorage Daily News. ''The fear is that Forest Service managers will begin managing for those types of opportunities that bring in the most revenues.''
Greg Super, who oversees the program at the national level for the forest service, acknowledged that some people philosophically oppose the fees.
''We can't retort that because it's a deeply held viewpoint,'' Super said. ''But people can see where the need is for management money to do the work.''
Super, who was in Alaska last week to check how the program is working, said land managers can help that perception by doing a better job of showing visitors where their dollars are being spent.
The biggest user-fee fund-raiser in Alaska was the Tongass National Forest's Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center at Juneau. The center charges $3 a person and brought in $524,000 in 1999, forest officials said last week.
Only one site in the Chugach National Forest is collecting demo fees: The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier charges $1 to watch its movie. It brought in $33,300 in 1999, Fisher said.
That will double next year when the movie ticket price jumps to $2, Super said.
The program also is being used by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Overall, it took in about $180 million last year.
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