by Ellen Cronin
Two elected officials from Grafton County testified Tuesday before a Congressional subcommittee in Washington at a hearing on a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., to exempt North Country residents from paying user fees to hike in the White Mountains.
The U.S. Forest Service recently began a pilot program involving parking passes for vehicles left at trailhead lots - basically, a user fee for hikers entering the White Mountain National Forest.
Bass is upset that the new fees are being instituted at a time when he perceives the federal government is not fulfilling its obligation to send money back, in the form of "Payment In Lieu of Taxes" to local communities, a program designed to compensate communities for the loss their tax base sustains for land that moved from private to federal ownership.
Until the federal government fully funds the PILOT program, Bass believes residents shouldn't be made to pay user fees to enjoy the forest. Thus, he has introduced legislation to exempt residents of the three northern counties, in which the White Mountain National Forest lies.
"This bill is about fairness and keeping promises," Bass told the House Subcommittee on Forests and Health. "Until we can get the (PILOT) program fully funded, it is simply unfair to ask residents to pay fees to enjoy land that they already help subsidize. It's like being charged to enter your own back yard."
Joining Bass in urging the committee to support the legislation were state Rep. Douglass Teschner, R-Haverhill, and Grafton County Commissioner Steve Panagoulis, R-Plymouth. Both men testified in Washington yesterday. Teschner lives in the Pike section of Haverhill, which is on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest. His background includes a degree in forestry and forest management. Practical experience ranges from performing forestry work while with the Peace Corps to volunteer work cutting early trails here in New Hampshire. Teschner has hiked the Whites for more than three decades.
"My constituents are angry about these new fees, and I'm here to represent their concerns," said Teschner. "The White Mountain National Forest makes up the backbone of recreational life in northern New Hampshire. And we understand the need to pay user fees when there are significant amenities - campgrounds, ski areas, etc. But to be forced to pay for a walk in the woods on our own public lands simply goes too far. It's an insidious form of double taxation."
"There is, in my view, a fundamental difference between a national forest and a national park," said Teschner, "and I think the public understands this, which is one reason there has been such an uproar over these new fees."
Teschner also questioned the high administrative cost of running the trail pass system. As he put it, "Forest Service personnel could better use their time managing the forest rather than putting leaflets on cars in parking lots."
As a county commissioner, Panagoulis focused on how lack of funding for the PILOT program has hurt local governments. "I know that when there are funding shortfalls in the PILOT program, we are forced to either raise property taxes or cut county services. Neither choice is good for our communities," he said.
Driving home the point that Washington now is asking locals for more money even though it is not living up to the promise to send money back to communities, Panagoulis said, "It is simply unacceptable - philosophically and fiscally - to ask citizens to pay user fees on land they already subsidize."