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Thursday, November 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Ron Judd

Demand access to nation's wild places

Seattle Times staff columnist

From the top of the Big Gore-Tex Northwest Mailbag, special public-lands edition:

Q: Thanks for being yet another bleating voice complaining about the "high" cost of visiting national parks and monuments — without offering any viable alternatives. Paying $15 for a weeklong pass to a national park is a pretty good deal compared to paying 10 bucks for two hours in a movie. Don't you get that the choice is to pay a reasonable fee, or get crappy amenities in return?

A: No, I don't.

A visit to Mount Rainier National Park is not a ring tone, a movie rental, or any other expendable entertainment commodity. For many people, it's a birthright — one in keeping with the charge of the National Park Service and other agencies to conserve the country's most special places for the enjoyment of the public.

The last time I checked, "public" still does not refer exclusively to members of the public well-heeled enough to afford the admission fee.

As to your "viable alternatives": I thought no one would ever ask. Many come to mind. But they all involve changes in spending priorities at the federal level — changes that usually come with strong political strings attached.

But if you insist on some examples of ways to make up for, and easily exceed, every cent of cash collected from user fees on federal lands, try these for starters: Divert a fraction of 1 percent of the recent tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans. Divert an infinitesimal fraction of what the government gives away in farm subsidies, corporate welfare, outdated and functionless weapons systems, Medicare cash grants to pharmaceutical companies, and those famous bridges-to-nowhere pork-barrel projects that stand as testaments to the soulless greed of myopic Alaskan congressmen (excuse all foregoing redundancies).

Don't like any of those bloated-cow budget targets? Pick your own source of cash diversion: Welfare, student loans, Social Security, foreign aid. Whatever.

My point: Money collected through public-lands user fees is laughably insignificant in the scope of total federal spending. In 2003, the last year for which numbers are available, the government collected $177 million in "fee-demo" charges for access to all public lands. This in a nation that expects federal expenditures of $2.6 trillion — more than $20,000 per U.S. household — in 2007.

Do your own math.

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If the numbers are too boggling, chew on this perspective: The entire National Parks budget for 2006 — after being slashed another 3 percent by the Bush administration during times of rising visitor use — will be about $2.3 billion. That's almost exactly the cost of a single B-2 bomber in our current Cold War arsenal, according to the General Accounting Office.

Call me old-fashioned, a socialist, or just a dreamer, but I believe the richest nation in the history of the world has not only the ability, but the responsibility to provide essential services: schools, health care, defense, public safety and infrastructure. I'm simply urging Americans to reaffirm the time-honored notion that access to this nation's wild places is one of those essential services — one that we demand.

I reject the premise that it comes down to a Hobson's choice of paying high user fees or facing restricted access. So should you. But the fact that you frame the question in those terms is further evidence that the government/recreation industry brainwashing is working. They want you to forget that you already gave at the office for your wilderness user fee — and a lot of other things you hold dear.

As long as you march happily to that tune, you'll live with your own self-fulfilling prophecy: high fees or bad services — or worse, restricted access.

Again, I think that's a sad comment on our society. And yes, I realize that public-lands access, for legitimate reasons, is not exactly a hot-button issue for a nation with citizens living under tarps in the wake of hurricanes, for a country with tens of millions without health care, and for a people losing thousands of sons and daughters on a battlefield.

But I also believe it's vital during times of national stress to reach out to our touchstones. It takes a collective wisdom to cling, especially during roller-coaster times of societal ups and downs, to the things that define us as a nation.

For Americans, the rejuvenating effect of visiting wilderness areas has always been one of those things. Tumult doesn't wipe that need away; if anything, it should deepen it.

Trail Mix appears every Thursday. To contact Ron Judd: 206-464-8280, rjudd@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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