Take a tax hike

Matt Johanson is a high-school teacher and avid hiker, climber and skier

Republicans call themselves the party of smaller government and lower taxes. Isn’t it strange, then, that President George W. Bush’s 2003-2004 budget proposal calls for more taxes and tax collectors in national parks and forests?

Hiking fees and increased entrance fees appeared in 1997 at 385 park and forest areas under the fee-demonstration program. Congress and Presidents Clinton and Bush approved and renewed the program.

Forests began taxing hikers for the first time, selling permits for up to $15 in areas like Washington’s Mount St. Helens. National parks increased entrance fees up to 400 percent; Yosemite raised its charge from $5 to $20.

Some parks, like Rainier and Sequoia, even taxed hikers in addition to higher entrance fees. Grand Canyon National Park raised its entrance fee from $10 to $20 and now charges hikers $10 per party, plus $5 per hiker per night. All told, a single hiker must now pay $35 to walk into the wilderness and camp.

In short, national forests, which require little maintenance and never charged fees in the past, now do. National parks multiplied their entrance fees several times and charge visitors again to simply take a walk. Bush’s proposal calls for making these taxes permanent. This is bad policy for several reasons.

First, this represents double or even triple taxation. Americans have already paid many taxes (sales, income and property) to manage their lands by the time they visit parks and forests. The entrance fees and trail charges the government requires are taxes, too.

Second, the fee-demonstration program disproportionately charges the middle and lower classes for park and forest expenses. Arbitrary entrance and hiking fees are regressive in nature and push poor Americans away from what always has been an inexpensive recreational outlet.

In addition, the economic premise makes no sense. Hikers in wilderness areas cost the government virtually nothing. Charging hikers for walking into the woods, and then spending a large part of those hikers’ money to hire rangers to make sure that the hikers pay, exemplifies government waste.

Instead, Congress should support the parks and forests through appropriations, drawn from progressively weighted income taxes.

The president’s critics say he only cares about cutting taxes for the rich. Bush could prove them wrong by asking Congress to terminate the fee-demonstration program once and for all.