My Trip to Washington, DC - The Reason for Going
I've been a recreational trails volunteer in northern Pennsylvania since I was in elementary school, and I'm in my 40's. The following is an excerpted announcement I sent out to fellow trails volunteers after traveling in Washington to talk to federal legislators with Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition. I will be posting some photos and other meditations on my trip, and show how my luggage wound up playing an unexpected role. All that will come later. I'm not sure if that's a promise or a threat... :D
Subject: NEWS - Recreation Allies Visit Federal Legislators
Date: March 31, 2009
THE LATEST NEWS ABOUT THE
ALLEGHENY NATIONAL FOREST
31 March 2009 *** *Warren, PA
TIONESTA VALLEY SNOWMOBILE CLUB GOES TO WASHINGTON, D.C.
U.S. REP. THOMPSON'S CHEIF OF STAFF FROM WASHINGTON, D.C. VISITS T.V.S.C.
RECREATION VOLUNTEERS WORK WITH OTHER GROUPS LOCALLY, NATIONALLY
Some very different organizations concerned with recreation on federal public lands found common ground when volunteers visited legislative offices recently in Washington, D.C. The meeting cemented a coalition formed in 2008 over concerns about the U.S.D.A. Forest Service's "recreation facilities analysis", and how the recreating public is treated on our national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. This dialogue with legislators continues to this day.
On March 10 and 11, 2009, Walt Atwood, a trails volunteer with the Tionesta Valley Snowmobile Club (TVSC) of Sheffield, PA, joined Kitty Benzar of the Western Slope No Fee Coalition(WSNFC; www.WesternSlopeNoFee.org) based in Durango, CO in visiting the offices of House and Senate members from coast-to-coast. Ms. Benzar reported that she was able to sit in on a speech given by Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell just days before. According to Benzar, Chief Kimbell expressed elation at the recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided the Forest Service with over $1.15 billion in public works funds. Of that amount, $500 million is supposed to be designated for fire protection (half for the agency and have to be distributed to state agencies). The other $650 million is supposed to go for capital improvement projects within the agency. Benzar said she was disappointed that Kimbell never once mentioned recreation in her speech.
The Forest Service's maintenance backlog for recreation facilities is a sensitive issue for both TVSC and WSNFC. In 1996, the Recreation Fee Demo Program became law, which relaxed prohibitions that had previously been in place to prevent the Forest Service and BLM from charging for general use and access to those lands. Fee Demo was replaced in 2005 by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (F.L.R.E.A.), which supporters in Congress promised would correct the problems with Fee Demo. According to WSNFC, the F.L.R.E.A. provisions designed to maintain free general public access have been ignored by the Forest Service and the BLM. "Fees continue to be levied for access to undeveloped backcountry," Benzar said, adding, "Fees continue for parking, including along state and county rights of way. De facto entrance fees continue for access to huge tracts of undeveloped Forest Service and BLM land. National park entrance fees have skyrocketed." Benzar also noted that these fees did not address the ongoing maintenance backlog for developed recreation fee areas; instead, the fees go to normal operating costs of these areas while the backlog remains. During the Forest Service's 2008 recreation facilities analysis on the Allegheny National Forest, TVSC volunteers noted that agency administrators were proposing the widespread decommissioning of recreation facilities. While visiting the legislative offices, Benzar gave everyone she talked to a whitepaper handout about the fee situation and how WSNFC proposes to address it. Benzar said that previous legislation to address the fee situation did not pass Congress, but each time to legislation failed by thinner margins.
Atwood spoke less of the national scale of the problem and more to the plight of volunteers on a local scale, specifically the Allegheny National Forest. Atwood quote a longtime saying from his mother, Karen Atwood, that "the Emperor has no clothes" in describing how the Forest Service seems to have funds for new offices, land acquisition or industrial uses of the ANF, but has long claimed to have no money for trails, trailheads, public restrooms or other developed public facilities. Atwood pointed out that, during the 2008 recreation facilities analysis, the Forest Service refused to answer questions about why the use of low-cost, low-maintenance composting toilet facilities has no been considered on the ANF while several sewage treatment facilities for its recreation areas remain in violation with the state Dept. of Environmental Protection's wastewater treatment regulations, some since 1994. Atwood noted that there are many recreation projects on national forests (including the ANF) that could be addressed by the remaining funds in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Atwood also introduced Benzar to the staffs of Pennsylvania legislators, including Senators Specter and Casey.
Prior to visiting Washington, Atwood contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Glen "G.T." Thompson of Howard Twp. in Centre County (R - 5th of PA), whose district encompasses the ANF. Thompson's office responded only after Atwood returned from Washington. On 30 March 2009 at Perkins restaurant in Warren, TVSC volunteers arranged a meeting with three of Thompson's aides, including Jordan Clark, Thompson's chief of staff. Participating in the meeting was William Belitskus, president of the Allegheny Defense Project, himself a volunteer with the local chapter of the North Country Trail Association. Mr. Belitskus regularly participates in ANF planning workshops and has attended workshops involving snowmobile trails planning in the past. Topics for the meeting included the current controversy over oil and gas drilling on the ANF and its impact on trails, the WSNFC whitepaper, the 2008 recreation facilities analysis and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
For more information about the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition:
Kitty Benzar, President
Western Slope No-Fee Coalition
P.O. Box 135
Durango, CO 81302
Walt Atwood, for:
Tionesta Valley Snowmobile Club, Inc.
Post Office Box 692
Sheffield, Pennsylvania 16347