Park Wars

It's a high-energy scene in the interior department's John Muir Room on the second Wednesday in June. Rangers from the National Park Service dispense information while their bosses dispense Bluebonnet ice cream. Guests from the Forest Service exchange gossip with their Interior counterparts, while other visitors pause to examine the displays set up around the room.

Most energetic of all is the event's host Derrick Crandall, the 50-year-old president of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). The coalition is perhaps Washington's least-known powerhouse. But with cabinet officers and members of Congress paying court, ARC's clout has been apparent the week of the ice-cream event, which is also the coalition's seventh annual "Great Outdoors Week."

At the moment, Crandall's energy may be augmented by worry. He is the driving force behind the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, the subject of the "information" (or perhaps propaganda) the park rangers are handing out. "Fee demo," as it's known, authorizes America's parks and national forests to collect money from hikers, anglers, hunters and skiers accustomed to wandering about public lands for free. And fee demo is running into some political trouble.

Crandall's default position, however, is to ignore trouble, to accentuate the positive and to stress harmony. "The public-private partnership is what we have here," he tells his guests in the John Muir Room. Even more than most Washington lobbyists, Crandall speaks very quickly, in complete sentences and in slogans.

In this case, the slogan is an accurate one. As Crandall speaks, Tom Ross of the National Park Service and Bill Anderson of Westrec Marinas, which calls itself "the world's largest owner operator of marinas and marine-related businesses," serve the ice cream. Government has supplied the premises and some of the help; everything else comes courtesy of the private sector. The Good Sam Club is a sponsor, as is Coleman, the outdoor-equipment manufacturer after whose founder ARC named its annual "Great Outdoors Award," bestowed last night on National Park Service Director Fran Mainella.

"We're looking for win-win solutions," Crandall intones. For example, in Arizona, farmers are using giant spray-irrigation towers in 100-degree dry heat. "How much of that water do you think ever hits the ground?" Crandall asks. "Now if we can make it in [the farmers'] interest to find alternative means -- drip irrigation, say -- there will be more water left in the lakes. It would be better for the fish."

Yes, and for the marina operators and motorboat manufacturers Crandall represents. Still, it does seem to make sense. Who can argue with private-public partnerships and winwin solutions?

Plenty of people, as it turns out, and their leader is both Crandall's ARChenemy and very much like him. Just a year older than Crandall, Scott Silver is another bundle of energy who speaks in complete sentences. From an office in Bend, Ore., he leads -- actually he is -- an organization known as Wild Wilderness, which is devoted to blocking "the commercialization, privatization and motorization" of public land. Armed with nothing but a hyperactive Internet connection, an intensity bordering on mania and the conviction that ARC is a conspiracy in pursuit of "the corporate takeover of nature," the former biochemist from Levittown, N.Y., has created a small but lively political movement. Its followers run the gamut from granola-scarfing backpackers to conservative rural westerners who love to bop about the desert in their four-wheel drives. These activists have not merely protested, they have disobeyed. At least one spent a night in the pokey for doing so. All this, in order to fight fee demo.

Fee demo is a niche political controversy about which even most Washington political cognoscenti are incognizant, though it has been condemned by four state legislatures, including California's. It is so esoteric and, at least at first glance, so limited in impact that it is easy to wonder whether Silver and his followers exaggerate its significance. But the fee fight belongs to the much larger battle over whether the values of the marketplace will dominate those of democracy. Its outcome will help determine how Americans use their public lands and waterways. And in the view of Silver and some academics, it may also determine how Americans comprehend the natural world.

Significant though it may be, there is no mystery about why this dispute has not made the front pages. What's at stake is not war or peace, economic equity, the education of the young, the retirement benefits of the old, the health care of either, or the quality of the air and water. No, this is about having fun.

But look again: Fun is one of America's obsessions, and therefore one of its biggest businesses. Recreation is at least a $300-billion-a-year business -- and growing. And while that figure includes health clubs and indoor tennis courts, "clearly the bulk of it is outdoor recreation," Crandall says. Most of it comes from the mechanized sector -- recreational and off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, motorboats, and the hotels and restaurants that cater to the drivers thereof.

Fun has also become politically important, because here, for perhaps the first time and place in history, millions of people identify themselves by the recreation they choose. From ancient Rome to Victorian England, there were always a few aristocrats who cared more about chariot racing, falconing or dueling than running their estates or even pleasing their mistresses. Now mass affluence and inexpensive toys allow the general run of folk to follow suit.

Many do. In Minnesota, Montana and Alaska, there are dogsled racers who hang out only with other dogsled racers. In Texas and Alabama, some guys with bass boats talk only to other guys with bass boats. They talk only about bass fishing, and if they read, that's all they read about. All over the country are mountain bikers, canoers, snowmobilers and motorboaters so devoted to their recreation of choice that it has replaced ethnic group, religion, political ideology or occupation as their tribal identity. No wonder more than a hundred colleges and universities offer majors in recreation (21 offer doctoral programs), or that there is a vibrant, and often contentious, recreational subcategory of the social sciences with its own quarterly, the Journal of Leisure Research.

So there's a huge market out there, and in order to grow, the mechanized outdoor-recreation industry wants more access to public land. Fee demo is part of its campaign to win that access. Passed in 1996 after years of lobbying by ARC, fee demo allows America's national parks and forests to charge for the use of some facilities--hiking trails, boat launches, picnic areas and campgrounds -- that had previously been free. As important as the fee itself is the fact that the park or forest unit that collects the money gets to keep it -- to fix up trails, put in more picnic tables, spruce up the visitors' center and take care of all those things that Congress has been skimping on for the last 25 years.

At first, the fees were to be a three-year experiment, but Congress extended the program. It's now set to expire in 2004, but even as Silver was planning his national fee-demo protests for the day after Great Outdoors Week ended, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced legislation to make the fees permanent.

This does not seem to be a fair fight. ARC has an annual budget of roughly $1 million, not to mention support from major corporations and the U.S. government under this administration and its predecessor. This year's Wild Wilderness budget comes to $18,000.

Nonetheless, Silver has almost single-handedly persuaded some 200 organizations, including the Sierra Club, to join his seemingly quixotic fight. Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) followed public opinion and now oppose the fees. And in what may have been a major breakthrough, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) joined them in mid-July. A combative conservative with close ties to the anti-environmental "wise use" movement, Craig is also an astute pragmatist who stays in touch with his constituents. If he's against the fees, so, probably, is most of the West.

No wonder. Charging folks for what used to be free has rarely been popular, even if the tab isn't very big. A typical fee is $5 to park in a trailhead parking lot (though it's often $5 per person per day, so if you want to take the family backpacking for a week, it can add up). The Forest Service claims that its surveys indicate widespread acceptance, but only those who opt to visit the parks and pay the fees have been surveyed.

What the survey does not reflect is widespread civil disobedience. From New Hampshire to the Northwest, thousands of hikers, bikers, all-terrain vehicle riders, anglers, bird-watchers and snowshoers have evaded the payments. Some have been fined, some have not. Some have paid their fines and some have refused. To prepare for his Sunday sermons, the Rev. Jeffrey Barker of Seattle hikes the popular Snow Lake Trail at Snoqualmie Pass almost every Saturday. He has never paid the fee, and returns all of his tickets to the Forest Service, with a note explaining that the fees violate his First Amendment rights of worship.

"It's double taxation," objects Art Goodtimes, a Colorado county commissioner whose jurisdiction adopted a resolution against fee demo. "We pay taxes for the management of public lands, and then we have to pay again for their use? Pretty soon public lands will only be the playgrounds of the rich."

Federal officials deny that fees discourage the less affluent from using public lands, and private-fee advocates laugh off the social-equity argument by asserting that low-income people aren't into outdoor recreation anyway. But that's debatable. Lower-income earners who live near national forests visit them often. When a study co-authored by a Forest Service researcher indicated that almost one-quarter of low-income families in rural Vermont and New Hampshire found the fees onerous, the Forest Service barred the reseARCher, Thomas More of the Northeastern Research Station in Burlington, Vt., from talking to reporters.

More's writings, however, speak eloquently to his concerns. Just as the purpose of state universities is to educate students who cannot afford high tuition, writes More in one article, and just as public libraries serve readers for whom books are too expensive, public recreation exists "to enable people to participate who could not do so otherwise." If "agencies begin to act like entrepreneurs seeking self-funding through fees, and low income people are excluded," More argues, "the public purpose -- the very reason for public ownership -- is defeated."

On the other hand, Crandall's contention that "it's very logical to recover more of the expenses from an individual who is enjoying special services than from the taxpaying public at large," is hardly absurd. The state university is taxpayer supported, too, yet students pay tuition. Ah, but suppose each department kept the tuition paid by its majors. That might be great for the business school, but terrible for the English department, which would be tempted to "market" itself. Off the reading list goes the troubling As I Lay Dying, replaced by the comforting The Bridges of Madison County.

The anti-fee crowd fears exactly this: that having the fee-charging entity keep the money transforms the federal land manager into an entrepreneur. It creates an incentive to do what brings in the bucks. And in this case, that means supplanting canoe tie-ups, primitive campsites and snowshoe paths with marinas, luxury campgrounds and snowmobile refueling stations.

If democratic standards ruled, silver would win and Crandall would lose. There would be more hiking trails, tent campsites and meadows for bird-watching; fewer recreational vehicle parks and snowmobile trails. For every activity except boating (slightly more people motorboat than canoe, kayak and row), substantially more Americans enjoy the outdoors without benefit of any internal-combustion engine except the one that got them to the lake or trailhead. This is according to a poll ARC's lobbying arm commissioned last year, so the industry group can't very well challenge the results.

But market standards favor the internal-combustion recreators. The atv driver, the recreational-vehicle camper, the motorboater and the snowmobiler require more expensive facilities. The nightmare of the anti-fee cause is that one day a forest supervisor will look at the quiet lake that's off-limits to motorboats and realize that he can bring in much more revenue if he opened it up to yachts and contracted with Westrec (there's that public-private partnership) to build a marina, with a restaurant, a bar and -- hell, while we're at it, why not a luxury hotel? "You may well see theme parks, malls and other 'amenities' on our public lands, all planned and built to wring more dollars out of you," says Lehman Holder, of the Sierra Club's southwestern Washington state chapter.

You may well, but you haven't yet. So far, no lake's legal status has been changed, nor have scores of primitive campgrounds been replaced by modern facilities with RV hookups, showers and movie theaters. "As a real-world danger I think it has a zero-reality quotient," Crandall says of such fears. The elaborate planning required to make those changes, as well as laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, render this worst-case scenario "so unlikely," explains Crandall, that it is "no more than a red herring."

"It is a slippery-slope argument," concedes Steve Homer of the American Lands Alliance, part of Silver's anti-fee coalition. "But there's a long history. The timber sale policy [on the national forests] over time created the incentive to do logging because that's essentially how they were paying for their salaries and overhead. The same thing could happen with recreation." Already, the concrete launch installed where rafters enter the San Juan River in southeastern Utah -- and the proposals for a luxury resort to be developed on public lands outside the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks -- foreshadow a real possibility that more public land will be converted for a profit that will feel to many ordinary park-goers like a loss. Motorboats, for example, were never banned from Como Lake in western Montana, but they hadn't labored up the narrow dirt road to it, either. Now the road is paved, recently instituted fees have financed picnic tables and restrooms, and motorized vessels dominate the scene. The canoers and kayakers who used to love Como now call it "Sacrifice Lake" and go elsewhere.

Nor need one be a conspiracy theorist (though Silver is) to note Crandall's latest recruit to the pro-fee cause: The Political Economy Research Center, a Bozeman, Mont., "free-market" think tank devoted to privatizing public land. Already, there is more "developed-site recreation" on public land than there used to be, and Crandall says there should be more, much of it privately owned and operated. "Just because there is no marina or campground someplace doesn't mean there never should be," he says.

The federal land managers obviously assume that the fees will become permanent and ubiquitous. Otherwise they would not be planning to create a single "pay to play" pass for all federal parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands, and relying on advice from the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, which also happens to be a member company of ARC.

Accounting is not usually considered part of the recreation business, but from its inception in 1979, the American Recreation Coalition has attracted an eclectic membership, from the American Association for Nude Recreation to the Suzuki and Kawasaki motor companies to Kampgrounds of America to -- perhaps most prominently -- the Walt Disney Company.

Like many of Washington's sophisticated interest groups, ARC keeps its profile low by acting in concert with officially independent entities. One of these is its lobbying wing, the Recreation Roundtable, which includes the heads of more than 25 big companies, not all of them ARC members. Then there is the Recreation Exchange, ARC's monthly lunch at which senior government officials meet with representatives of companies or associations, including non-ARC members such as aaa and the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, financed by the auto industry.

ARC's newest ally is the National Alliance of Gateway Communities, which is lobbying for more intensive tourist development on public land near "gateway" towns outside the national parks. The alliance has no official relationship with ARC, but it shares with many ARC members both its public-relations firm and its interest in creating more souvenir stores and resort hotels on the fringes of the parks. The alliance's telephone number (from an online copy of its "official newsletter") rings the office of Washington lobbyist Aubrey King, an associate of Albertine Enterprises, which also represents the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the Western States Tourism Policy Council -- all of which are ARC members.

None of this is either illegal or unusual, but it is an effective way to leave few footprints. ARC does, however, seek publicity for programs such as its "Wonderful Outdoor World." With public and private money, ARC brings 30 to 40 inner-city kids to a local park to teach them how to set up a tent, gaze at the stars, be careful about fires and enjoy the natural world. Silver opposes even this seemingly benign activity, claiming that its real purpose is to create future customers for commercial recreation. His one visit to a Wonderful Outdoor World event convinced him that what was being conveyed was "not appreciation of the outdoors, but appreciation of how to be a skier, or a consumer of defined recreational products," he later wrote. "Are these corporate promoters of Industrial Strength Wreckreation and Tourism really asking for input from an underrepresented segment of the population, or are they attempting to manufacture public opinion and consent?"

Eric Higgs says it's the latter. Higgs, director of the University of Victoria's School of Environmental Studies, is one of a small band of academics convinced that the big recreation firms -- especially Disney -- are deliberately working to alter the way Americans perceive the natural world. An article he wrote with Jennifer Cypher, then a graduate student at York University, argues that Disney is involved in a corporate campaign "designed to transform nature into a commodity, to sell nature, wilderness, and the experience of the great outdoors." Disney's goal, the authors contend, is not simply to provide recreation but "to create and reinforce ideologies, particularly ideologies which are supportive of capitalism and consumption."

Sure, this wisdom comes from an article in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, a quarterly devoted to the "red/green" persuasion. But Higgs has respectable academic credentials. The article was based on Cypher's three-week visit to Disney's 728-room Wilderness Lodge in Orlando, Fla., celebrated as a "tribute to the great lodges of the early 20th century," with the motto, "Don't just stay, explore," though all the "exploring" has been prearranged. To Higgs and Cypher, "The Wilderness Lodge is literally changing what people understand ä nature to be, and this in turn shapes their views of the real thing."

Disney is perhaps ARC's most prominent member. Its corporate vice president for environmental policy, Kym Murphy, is one of three senior vice presidents of the Recreation Roundtable, and ARC events are often held at Disney resorts. It's well-known that Disney's "imagineers" design -- and sanitize -- impressions. But though Higgs and Cypher assemble persuasive evidence, their thesis remains conjecture. If there were a concerted corporate effort afoot to pervert the ordinary person's understanding of the natural world, wouldn't there be at least one program on the Disney-owned abc network furthering the cause? There does not seem to be.

Perhaps Higgs, Silver, et al. find it hard to acknowledge that people have always viewed nature as a commodity, a perception ill-scorned by those of us who live in houses made of wood. Perhaps it is the opposite view of nature -- as a spiritual solace best left in its wild state -- that has to be indoctrinated via education and contemplation.

This may be both the oldest and the most fundamental American discussion, conducted not only among antagonists but within each of us. The early western explorer Jedediah Smith loved the wilderness both for the peace of mind it offered and for the revenue its beaver hides generated. These days, corporations dominate the discussion like they dominate so much else. Will democratic values triumph over commercial ones? If they do -- or even if they don't -- Scott Silver and his outspent band of followers deserve credit for refusing to cede industry complete control of the field.