I read and and (generally) enjoy www.NewWest.net–an online magazine covering news relevant to the Bozeman community as well as outdoor living in the Rocky Mountain West.
I’ve been annoyed of late, however, by the repeated tirades of one particular NewWest.net author, Bill Scheider, against the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).
Enacted under the Bush administration in 2004, the FLREA’s most significant effect was to increase user fees for public lands and pave the way for the privatization of campgrounds in our national parks. Now, I’m no fan of fees (who is?), but his plaintive whining lacks any reasonable ground in economic theory. I’ve exceeded my tolerance threshold. So, to “shut him up”–ha! No–just to vent my frustration–I’ve wasted an hour of my time trying to bring some reason to the discussion. I’m sure I’ve failed, but owing to the effort involved, I’ve re-posted my response here.
The particularly objectionable article that I responded to: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/obama_retains_bush_legal_defense_of_public_land_recreation_fees
The entire list of Schneider’s rants on the subject: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/recreation_fee_chronology
(And, yes, I’m aware of the comparisons to be drawn between arguing on the internet running in the Special Olympics. I require no reminder.)
(Good heavens. I’m going to break a personal rule, here, and argue on the internet.)
Let’s be clear: are President Obama’s environmental policies everything that left-ist environmentalists had “hoped” for? No. Does that mean he hates national forests? No. The suggestion that Mr. Obama’s environmental policies have so far been the same as Mr. Bushs’ is hyperbolic, at best. Ken Salazar is no Edward Abbey, true–but also no Gale Norton.
To read Mr. Schneider’s repeated polemics against the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), you’d think the act a bald-faced and pernicious attack on Americans’ access to public lands.
It’s not. Rather, the FLREA is simply a manifestation of the free-market/capitalist belief that user fees best allocate scarce resources between competing users. Nothing more, nothing less.
The grounds for reasonable arguement, here, is over the term “best”. A free market environmentalist believes “best” to mean “most efficient”. Mr. Schneider, it seems, believes “best allocation” to mean “most egalitarian”. Disagreement with the free market allocation scheme naturally follows.
The economics of the matter is clear: assuming 1) sufficient crowding to reduce ALL USERS’ enjoyment of a given recreation area / public land (owing to dislike of forests teeming with mall-like masses, or simply because crowds imply more impact, litter, overflowing parking lots, etc.); and 2) the availability of good (less crowded) substitutes (there’s plenty of public lands around the Mount Lemmon area), THEN charging a user fee will actually increase the total amount of utility (roughly: enjoyment) users get from a fee-affected area.
The short explanation is: user fees mean fewer users, but more enjoyment for those fewer users. Let me try to explain:
Let’s use Mount Lemmon (or, specifically the Sky Island National Scenic Byway) as an example. Given Mount Lemmon’s relative proximity to Tucson, let’s say that, on a given weekend, recreators will flock to Mount Lemmon up until the point that Mount Lemmon is so crowded that recreators are indifferent between going to Mount Lemmon and, let’s say, nearby Catalina State Park (which, we assume, can accommodate many users and is not threatened by overcrowding).
Now, suppose the introduction of a High Impact Recreation Area (HIRA) user fee of, say, $20 for Mount Lemmon. Those who were previously indifferent between a crowded Mount Lemmon and an uncrowded Catalina State Park now go to Catalina. Those who get $20 worth of enjoyment from a less-crowded Mount Lemmon will now be indifferent between Mount Lemmon and Catalina.
Here’s the difference, though. Those who get greater than $20 worth of enjoyment from a less crowded Mount Lemmon than Catalina State Park are now much better off. If one was previously indifferent between a free but crowded Mount Lemmon and Catalina State Park, but gets $30 worth of enjoyment from hiking in a less crowded Mount Lemmon, this person gets $10 worth of pleasure from the Mount Lemmon area that, if not for the fee, nobody would get in the absence of the fee.
In short, the user fee allocates a scare recreation area from those who value it less to those who value it more. When crowded, nobody gets much enjoyment (relative to other alternatives) from the area. When less crowded, at least a few people get considerable enjoyment.
(I’m sorry if I’ve explained this poorly–the concept certainly deserves better explanation.)
My point is simply this: there’s nothing pernicious about the FLREA. The lawmakers who drafted and voted for the FLREA, I’ll wager, love our public lands and resources as much as any who argue against recreational area taxes. They just happen to hold the view that user fees are the best (i.e. “most efficient”) way to preserve and ensure access to our national treasures.
For my part, I love our national forests and parks. The only reason I’ve felt outrage about the increased fees for, say, privatized campgrounds in our national parks, is that I grew up paying $6, and now I have to pay $18. But if I’d grown up with the expectation that staying in an improved campground with such amenities as a fire-pit, clean, painted table, toilet, water, etc. cost $18, I’d have no quibbles. Better a campground priced at marginal cost than no campground at all.
(Let the flaming begin…)