October 7, 2004

Billings Gazette

Rec fees surpass grazing for first time in BLM history

By Brett French

Recreation receipts brought in more money than grazing this year for the first time in the history of the Bureau of Land Management.

For fiscal year 2004, the BLM collected $13.5 million in recreation receipts compared to $10 million for grazing. What's more, the agency estimates that 93 percent of its contacts with the pubic are now related to recreation.

"We used to do recreation on the side," said Bob Ratcliffe, deputy manager of recreation and visitor services for the agency. In fact, the public would sometimes derisively refer to the BLM as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. That's changing. With recreation gaining a higher profile, the agency has earned a new nickname - the Bureau of Leisure and Motorhomes.

"Recreation is now on the same playing field as grazing and forestry," Ratcliffe said. Although that's partly because timber and grazing revenues have fallen in the past four years. "It will never bring in the kinds of receipts we see from oil and gas. But it's big, big, big."

View from the hill

Ratcliffe, 48, was in Billings Sept. 29 to tour some of the state's sites and talk to BLM leaders in the region. He's been with the agency 15 years, the last four in Washington, D.C., so he's been positioned to see the startling growth in public play on BLM lands and the resulting problems that have arisen.

Recreation on BLM lands has grown about 65 percent in the last 15 to 20 years, Ratcliffe said. Close to large urban areas, some BLM lands have seen use jump tenfold or more.

"Recreation is not an activity anymore - it's a passion, a religion, a core value," Ratcliffe said. And while the public may like to visit national parks or forests, they bring their "toys" to BLM lands - everything from ATVs to dune buggies, mountain bikes to guns for target practice.

Consequently, when federal land managers make changes or restrict access to lands that may have been used by the public for a number of years, they fight back.

Management guide

The BLM faces a tough balancing act, Ratcliffe said, of providing access to public lands but to also preserve the quality of the experience without degrading the resource.

"The question is: How can we keep these places at the level where we can all enjoy them for a long, long time?" Ratcliffe said.

To help make such resource decisions, the BLM has produced a pamphlet to guide management of recreation and visitor services through 2007. The guide states three main goals for BLM's recreation services: to improve access, ensure a quality experience and provide fair value in recreation.

Ratcliffe said BLM's mission is complicated by the fact that the bureau allows activities other land management agencies wouldn't dream of permitting. He pointed to the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada as an example. Over the course of a week, a community of 25,000 springs up on BLM land.

"It's as legitimate a use of public lands as everyone else," Ratcliffe said.

Technology also is constantly forcing the agency to retool how it addresses use, an example being the surge in sales and use of all-terrain vehicles.

"It used to be that we were always the agency that managed lands that everybody else didn't want," Ratcliffe said. "And now the land that nobody wanted, everybody wants."

Although fees collected from recreation may be increasing - due to the meteoric rise in the use of federal lands - BLM still has a hard time finding funding. Coming up with more money for signs, rangers or to purchase access is difficult. To help make up the discrepancy, the agency is leveraging what it gets by working with other federal, state and volunteer organizations. The BLM is also now charging fees for events, such as Eco Challenge or Jeep Safari. The Burning Man festival alone brought in $600,000. Another new way BLM is raising money in Nevada is by selling urban-interface lands to developers with the money collected going to purchase public access, easements or for watershed improvements elsewhere.

Ratcliffe said, however, that the BLM does not and will not charge fees for access to trails - a fund-raising technique the Forest Service has experimented with much to the dissatisfaction of many users.

"We will only charge a fee where there is a facility," Ratcliffe said. "We will never charge where people just want to go out and visit public lands."