After a short walk from our corporation-managed public campground in Los Padres National Forest, we’re confronted with a large sign at the beginning of Aliso Canyon Nature Trail: Adventure Pass Required. The second graders I’m leading on a nature hike slowly sound out the syllables on the placard and, puzzled, ask Sophia’s Dad (that’s me): “What’s an Adventure Pass?”

(Flash-forward to 2012: See “Hiker’s Help Axe Forest Adventure Pass“)

Little do these kids know their question is a complex one that’s baffled adults for years. I offer a simple answer: “It’s a $5 a day charge to use the Forest.”

“Five, ten, fifteen…” the class counts off, displaying newly acquired mastery of counting-by-fives and concluding $100 is the fee to use this footpath. “Mr.…John, why do we have to pay to take a hike?”

Ignoring the Adventure Pass placard, I direct my curious charges onto the trail and divert their attention from economics to ecology by pointing out the different sages growing on Sage Hill. In truth, it would be easier explaining photosynthesis to seven-year olds than the Adventure Pass, the U.S. Forest Service’s monumentally unpopular experimental revenue generation program. What seemed on the surface to be an innocuous parking fee has sparked a national debate on the very meaning of public land as well as questions about the individual and collective responsibility Americans have this land.

The Adventure Pass (formally named the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program) goes by a number of different names (in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, for example, it’s called a “passport”) and guises in some 50 forests across the nation. Despite widespread public outrage from user groups ranging from hikers to hunters, and from organizations as diverse as the Sierra Club and the N.R.A., Congress r extended the program until September, 2001, and is considering making forest fees permanent.

In Southern California, The Adventure Pass, which costs $5 per day or $30 per year, is required for parking a vehicle or hiking anywhere within the boundaries of the region’s four national forests—Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland and Los Padres. Forest users caught without a pass are subject to a $100 fine.

National Forest officials are paying particular attention to the program’s viability in Southland national forests because some 20 million people live within a two-hour drive of a national forest. The Forest Service believes if it can’t make The Adventure Pass work in large forests surrounded by a large population, it can’t make the pass work anywhere.

Not so very long ago, Congress perceived that our national interests required us to extract every possible mineral from, and cut down every saleable tree in, our national forests. Legislators spent billions of dollars from the public purse to build roads and otherwise subsidize private corporations to make it easier for them to dig, drill and chop.

Philosophically and practically, the Forest Service was for the most part compliant with such utilitarian uses of our national forests. True, national forests provided many opportunities for campers, anglers and hikers, but recreation on public lands was long regarded as an amenity—something extra.

During the past decade or so, environmental laws, court decisions, and a finally fiscally responsible Congress combined to greatly reduce the activities of resource extractors on public land. Today, some 75 percent of the gross revenue from national forests comes from recreation and tourist-related activities. Only 3 percent is derived from cutting trees.

As a result of these enormous shifts in economics and environmental ethics, the Forest Service must now cope with a wholesale change in forest use and in forest user. If its disastrous Adventure Pass program is any indication, the agency isn’t coping with such changes very well.

Accustomed by tradition and corporate culture to listening to the Big Resource Industry, the Forest Service began listening to the Big Recreation Industry—in particular the American Recreation Coalition, representing huge concessionaires, resort developers, and motorized vehicle manufacturers. This group and others have aggressively pushed their pay-to-play agenda and lobbied for greatly increasing the number of private enterprises on public land.

Clearly the Adventure Pass program has a political agenda that goes way beyond collecting a few dollars because the money generated (half or more consumed in enforcement of the program) is paltry. At the current annual rate of Adventure Pass sales, it will take 200 years to fund the Forest Service’s billion-dollar backlog of maintenance projects.

You don’t have to be a militant eco-warrior or conspiracy nut just a keen follow-the-money observer to realize that the Adventure Pass Program has very little to do with funding our forests and very much to do with advancing the causes of privatization and commercialization of our public lands.

One of the Forest Service’s first revenue raising blunders was its decision to target what is calls the “human-powered recreation industry” (composed of hikers, kayakers, bicyclists, bird-watchers, etc.). Unfortunately for fee collectors, such outdoors enthusiasts practice what the forest service calls “dispersed recreation;” in other words these groups wander all over the map and make fee collection all but impossible.

Forest Service bureaucrats also lost the trail when they failed to consider that the Adventure Pass Program asks Americans to make a profound philosophic shift. For most of 20th century, part of our national legacy has been free access to public land, and the Forest Service has offered Americans no convincing argument why this legacy should be lost. The Forest Service should have realized that top-down decision making by Washington bureaucrats rarely plays well in the heartland–particularly on a subject as dear to American hearts as national forests.

Little wonder then that opposition to forest fees is widespread across the political spectrum. Liberals worry that the new fees will keep poor families from enjoying a forest outing. Conservatives who might ordinarily be sympathetic to a fee-for-service program are appalled that the Adventure Pass amounts to nothing less than double taxation by the Forest Service, already supported by tax dollars.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) has introduced The Forest Access Immediate Relief (FAIR) Act, legislation that would eliminate Adventure Pass user fees. This bill has gathered considerable bipartisan support. The boards of supervisors of Los Angeles, Kern and Ventura counties have declared their opposition to the Adventure Pass.

While looking for money in all the wrong places, Forest Service officials are nevertheless on firm ground when they argue that present funding for forests is pathetic: Only about one cent of every one thousand dollars in federal tax revenue is disbursed to our 155 national forests.

After axing the Adventure Pass, Congress must find other ways to fund our forests. Increased royalties on timber sales and oil leases are a few of many ways to raise revenue. Rep. Capps’ bill prohibits Forest Service engineering support (i.e. road-building) and redirecting such money to offset any monies lost by eliminating the Adventure Pass.

Congress might even consider that the nation’s great economic boom has occurred in part because Americans work so hard (a very long average work week) and play so little (very little vacation time compared to Europeans, for example). Free forests could be seen as a kind of national perk for the hard-working, stressed-out populace.

If Forest Service management and Congress can’t see the forest for the fees, the American people can. Both groups must stop regarding forest users as mere customers and start regarding them as fellow adventure-seekers and caretakers of the land.

The private sector most assuredly has a place in the forests of the new millennium. Lodging, ski lifts and marinas are among the many outdoor enterprises better managed by private enterprise than government. But big recreational interests, like big timber interests before them, must not be permitted to formulate forest policy.

With its Adventure Pass the Forest Service has, in the clumsiest possible way, posed a legitimate question: Is it time to end our hundred-year tradition of free access to public land?

While the Adventure Pass is obviously a ridiculous response to that question, the question itself deserves discussion around campfires and in community halls across America. For the moment at least, Americans are not ready to make a philosophic shift without a philosophic debate.

Until we’ve had that debate I suggest recalling the words of that great naturalist and tax-resister Henry David Thoreau: “All good things are wild and free.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not ready to regard a nature hike as a forest product and the little hikers in my charge as forest consumers. One look at the smiles of the children skipping back down Aliso Canyon Trail, tells you all you need to know about the value of our national forests and the responsibility we Americans have to figure out a way—a much better way–to pay for something that’s absolutely priceless.