A proposed “annual programmatic administrative fee” for communications towers on U.S. Forest Service lands has drawn criticism from Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert and others.
In a Feb. 11 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment Deputy Assistant Secretary Meryl Harrell, Boebert, along with 10 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, questioned the need for the $1,400 fee that would be imposed annually on entities. with communication towers on Forest Service land.
“It should also be noted that these new administrative fees are to cover program administration costs, i.e. salaries and expenses, not exactly infrastructure maintenance,” Boebert and colleagues said in their letter to Harrell. “By its own admission, the USDA has developed a single administrative fee structure, without regard to specific use authorizations, service areas, or ability to pay.”
While $1,400 may seem like a drop in the bucket for counties with multimillion-dollar annual operating budgets, Pitkin County Telecommunications Manager Jeff Krueger pointed out how, depending on the number of towers an entity owned on Forest Service property, $1,400 could add up. quickly.
“We are absolutely concerned about this,” Krueger said. “We currently pay about $16,000 a year in annual rental fees for eight communications towers that are currently on Forest Service land and provide utility-related communications.”
The towers provide essential services like two-way communications for law enforcement and other first responders during emergencies in backcountry regions.
“Our department actually has a small budget,” Krueger said. “Our budget actually comes from public safety agencies.”
It was Montezuma County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen who sounded the alarm to Boebert’s office about potential price hikes for communication towers on Forest Service land.
“The smaller counties, most likely, could turn around and charge the Forest Service a rental fee for their equipment that’s on our towers,” Spratlen said Tuesday. “They’re going to charge us $1,400 — we’re going to turn around and charge them $2,800.”
Spratlen and other public officials have requested that the comment period for the proposed programmatic administrative fee be extended by 30 days.
“We don’t understand why they can’t just waive that public safety fee,” Spratlen said. “The same towers they charge us are the same towers they use – or may use – and which we also use to help fight wildfires and to save the lives of their people as well as our own. “
In an email Tuesday, U.S. Forest Service deputy national press secretary Wade Muehlhof said the proposed programmatic administrative fee would not be charged for “towers” but rather for “communication use permissions.” “.
“Across the White River National Forest, there are 22 communication sites in total. The Forest Service recognizes that communications infrastructure is a critical asset that gives rural communities the resources they need to participate in a global economy,” Muehlhof said. “The new programmatic administrative fee would allow the agency to have dedicated and trained staff for its communications use program, allowing the Forest Service to develop and maintain a more robust communications use program.”