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HR 5204: Congressional Bill to Charge for All Use of Public Lands

Whether you like to camp, kayak, or just enjoy the great outdoors from the comfort of your RV, you probably take for granted that you will always have an affordable place to go. You know… nature. Well, that may not be true anymore if HR 5204 is enacted into law.

I would like to preface what I’m about to say with this: politics aren’t our thing. We’re not activists. We don’t care about political party affiliations. Heck, one of the best things about living on the road is not having to deal with town-hall bureaucracy. But sometimes we just aren’t neutral.

Your Federal tax dollars, among many other things, go to paying for conservation and maintenance of national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands such as those controlled by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This ensures that millions of acres of U.S. Federal Lands remain open to the public for “free” (tax-covered) non-commercial use.

To be clear, current law already allows conservation agencies to collect fees in high-traffic, heavily maintained areas—e.g. ones with paved roads, welcome centers, running water, daily trash collection, safety fences/railings, etc. such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. These parks are patrolled regularly and have a high maintenance cost. Additional fees are collected through seasonal hunting and fishing licenses as well as admission to maintained campgrounds. That’s not what this Bill is for.

No, this Bill is designed to allow federal collection of fees for any and all access to the rest of it—the undeveloped, unmaintained land. It also re-appropriates where some of the collected funds will go. Meaning more will go to administration and less to local maintenance. It devalues existing lifetime passes (i.e. those used by military families, seniors, and the disabled.) It also specifically authorizes privatized (commercial) management of BLM lands. Continue reading for some of the other highlights.

Pay Attention NOW

House of Representatives Bill HR 5204 was introduced as an amendment to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) on July 25th, shortly before the House adjourned for their August recess. It passed committee and will be considered by the House of Representatives. This is scheduled to happen when they return to session the week after Labor Day.

HR 5204 is expected to be earmarked as a rider onto a larger appropriations bill. If this happens it will receive no public debate and won’t be voted on directly; just attached to a more important “must pass” bill and indirectly enacted into law through both congressional chambers.

Right now it’s just open for House-wide consideration. If approved for a vote, the bill can be earmarked onto anything else. If you have anything to say to your congressman (or your local activist group), now’s the time to say it.

You can hop over to POPVOX to send a letter to your Representative the easy way.

Thanks to the U.S. Congressional website, you can follow the Bill’s progress online with an up-to-date list of all actions on the Bill (including floor amendments).

The Highlights

Of course, the Bill was written as an “amendment.” This translates to a 40-page list of line-by-line additions, subtractions, and substitutions without a provided copy of the original text. This makes it particularly difficult to read. It’s also impossible to understand without a current copy of the existing law to compare it against (see links below).


Here are a few of the amendment’s highlights:

  • Eliminates existing prohibitions on fees for parking on, picnicking at, driving through, walking upon, kayaking in (etc.) public lands.
  • Hot springs are now developed “swimming sites.” Fees apply.
  • Eliminates fee waivers for educational use. Except in the case where the use would earn academic credit and has pre-approval by the Secretary of Agriculture!)
  • Eliminates requirements on campgrounds charging a fee to provide trash cans, dumpsters, and campfire rings. The phrase”trash collection” replaced”refuse container,” which can simply refer to occasional cleanup rather than actual trash cans.
  • For some reason,”regularly serviced and well maintained toilets” replaced requirements for “flush toilets.” Effectively, it replaces the infrastructure-based plumbing requirement with an outhouse or portable toilet.
  • Limits purchase and use of Interagency passes—such as the America the Beautiful Pass—which cover Day Use and Entrance Fees to U.S. residents only… which means you would have to prove your residency to park services when presenting the pass.
  • Repeals the existing right of public land oversight agencies, such as the US Forest Service or BLM, to declare fee-free days at their discretion… so much for Earth Day.
  • Authorizes “concessionaire” (privatized, commercial) management of BLM public lands.
  • Requires concessionaires operating federally-owned campgrounds to honor federal access pass discounts only “to the extent reimbursement is practical.”
  • Bumps up allowed fee collection and administration spending from 15% to 25%—When you combine that with the allowance for privatized central fee collection, that 10% comes out of funds currently used for land maintenance and goes into private “concessionaire” pockets.

What does this mean?

In other words… you will pay to enter any and all public lands. Public land you already pay for with your taxes. Period. You will pay even if you’re a student (or more specifically, schools and parents will pay). You won’t necessarily be provided any type of service for your fee. This might shut down some existing services in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Discounts and benefits are currently provided to military families, seniors, and the disabled. These may or may not be honored on a per-location basis. Where it is honored, it will become more difficult to use. Where profitable, they will commercialize land management. The majority of such per-location discount decisions will be made by privately owned business managers. And, because those commercial enterprises are so busy, we’re going to throw them 25% of the proceeds from “public land” use.

I am not OK with that.

I enjoy access to federally protected lands. I’m proud to have a system that supports those that have given their all for our country. I trust that the forest rangers have our safety and the preservation of national forest lands as their highest priorities. I’m not ready to entrust all of that to for-profit business.

Further Examination

Never just believe what someone tells you, especially when it comes to politics. Do your research and form your own opinion.

For your own comparison, you can read the original proposal here, HR 3238 of the 108th Congress, 2004, and the law as it currently stands here, HR 4818, Division J, Title VIII of the 108th Congress, 2004.

You can also read a more extensive (albeit a bit biased) summary of the proposed HR 5204 amendment (and their line-numbered reference text) as published by the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.

Let others know, regardless of which side you’re on. In the end, it falls upon all of us to preserve our public lands. If you feel strongly one way or the other, let your congressman know by petition, written letter, or via POPVOX.

Disclaimer: We are not affiliated with, nor do we specifically support, any of the groups or websites mentioned in this article.

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