Cut out fees, but keep money flowing

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Having to pay five bucks to lay out a picnic lunch on the shore of Anthony Lake, a privilege that was free until last summer, is a prospect unpleasant enough to mar even the sublime scenery of the Elkhorn Mountains.

A trio of U.S. senators contends we shouldn't have to shell out so much as a dime to enjoy a couple hours of tranquility at the lake.

To that end, Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, and his two Democratic colleagues from Montana, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, have introduced a bill that would get rid of day-use fees at Anthony Lake and at thousands of other places on public land, including 16 trailheads in the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon.

That list might also include BLM's Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City.

The legislation, S-2438, is titled the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007. We support the bill but with one caveat.

Congress, if it decides to do away with day-use fees, must ensure that it gives the BLM and Forest Service enough money to take care of picnic areas, trailheads, visitor centers and other facilities so that they remain usable for the public.

Critics of the Crapo-Baucus bill might argue that it was Congress' failure to allocate sufficient dollars that prompted the agencies to impose day-use fees.

But the bigger problem is that when agencies are allowed to charge day-use fees, managers gain a new source of revenue and no longer have as much incentive to run their operations as efficiently as possible.

We think managers who are forced to truly scrutinize how much they're spending will be better able to make persuasive cases to Congress when they lobby for bigger budgets.

The bottom line is that day-use fees amount to a double tax on the people who pay them.

Fees also deter people from using facilities which they've already helped to pay for.

An example is the Interpretive Center, where visitor numbers declined after the BLM started charging admission fees in June 1997 (admission was free when the center opened May 23, 1992).

Eliminating admission fees is not only fair, but it likely would attract more visitors to the Interpretive Center.

That in turn would be a boon for the local economy, since some businesses rely heavily on tourists' dollars, especially during the summer.

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The Baker City Herald
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