The price of permits to cut down Christmas trees in several Western national forests is nearly doubling in some cases, but the additional revenues will not go to local schools or road projects, the traditional beneficiaries of the timber program.
Instead, the National Forest Service is taking advantage of loopholes in legislation and keeping most of the money, according to a public-lands watchdog group.
By shifting the Christmas tree program from timber products to supervision under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), the Forest Service no longer will have to share a chunk of the revenue with school districts and county governments.
It boils down to whether extractive uses, such as tree cutting, can be reclassified as recreation, said Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition in Durango, Colo.
“It’s about greed,” Miss Benzar said.
Recreation fees don’t have to be shared; other fees do. So everything is being redesignated as recreation, whether it fits, she said.
The coalition is tracking the number of national forests participating in what she calls a “sleight of hand” to bypass congressional intent to keep money to which they are not entitled.
“Basically, it’s a skim,” Miss Benzar said.
“They need to get a legal opinion supporting their interpretation, especially considering the decades-long practice of classifying Christmas trees as part of the timber program,” she said.
“This will especially hit the many counties in the West that have a majority of their land in national forests,” she said.
In several Western states, the National Forest Service is raising the price of the permits to cut the trees, from $5 to $10 or even $15. After paying basic mandated fees to Washington, it keeps the remainder of the money.
Donna Drelick, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said the Forest Service interprets FLREA as being “the authority under which individual permits may be sold,” but added that “this policy has not been finalized” and that the Forest Service is considering three new options on future fee collections.
Miss Drelick said one option is to meld the two programs together; a second is not to use the new authority and continue to sell only under its authority to dispose of trees and other forest products. A third option is to transfer the timber program to the recreation program.
“The monies, which are in addition to the normal receipts, are to be used to manage and enhance the cutting of trees,” Miss Drelick said. “This work might include such activities as brochures, snow plowing, or other management activities relating to the cutting of a tree.”
Miss Drelick said they do not have an estimate as to how much money has been collected nationally from the tree program. However, a source familiar with the program said more than $1 million was raised last year, but the sum includes sales to commercial tree sellers in addition to permits sold to individuals.View Entire Story
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