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U.S. Park Recreation Fees Rise To Cover Firefighting Costs

Reeling from the high cost of fighting wildfires, federal land agencies have been imposing new fees and increasing existing ones at recreation sites across the West in an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars.

Additionally, hundreds of marginally profitable campsites and other public facilities on federal lands have been closed, and thousands more, from overlooks to picnic tables, are being considered for removal.

“As fire costs increase, I’ve got less and less money for other programs,” said Dave Bull, superintendent of the Bitterroot National Forest here in Hamilton. The charge for access to Lake Como, a popular boating destination in the national forest, will be increased this year to $5 from $2.

Last year, the Forest Service collected $60 million in fees nationwide, nearly double the $32 million in 2000. The Bureau of Land Management, the country’s biggest landlord, also doubled its revenues over the same period, to more than $14 million from $7 million. The agency projects revenues from the fees will grow an additional $1 million this year.

Though the new and increased fees still account for a small portion of the agencies’ overall budgets, they have riled elected officials and environmental and recreation groups across the West. The critics complain that there has been insufficient public involvement in the changes — imposed at hundreds of locations over the past three years or so — and suggest they reflect a significant shift in federal policy to a market-based approach from one of managing sites for public benefit.

ECB, Britain Hold Rates Steady

The European Central Bank and the Bank of England left their interest rates unchanged on Thursday, highlighting their differences with the Federal Reserve in the United States.

The European Central Bank left its rate at 4 percent and the British central bank stood pat at 5.25 percent. Both moves had been widely expected.

In contrast to the Fed, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, and Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, appear confident that growth is strong enough and inflationary pressures pressing enough to justify current policy.

The Bank of England kept rates steady because “growth is holding up,” said Dominic Bryant, senior European economist at BNP Paribas in London. The situation on the Continent is a little more complicated, he said, because two euro-zone countries — Spain and Italy — were sharply slowing. Nonetheless, he said, there is little chance that the ECB will lower rates before the second half of the year.

Ben S. Bernanke PhD ’79, the chairman of the Fed, has declared a weakening economy to be a greater threat than inflation. The Fed is widely expected to cut rates by as much as three-quarters of a point at its next meeting on March 18.

Under Power-Sharing Agreement, Kenyan Parliament Convenes

The Kenyan Parliament met for the first time on Thursday since a power-sharing deal was struck to end a political crisis that had plunged the country into chaos.

Politicians from the ruling party and the opposition spoke sweet words of unity — but the top leaders continued to sit apart from one another in the chamber.

“Honorable members, you must now become the ambassadors of peace and reconciliation,” President Mwai Kibaki told the lawmakers. “Please forget the history of what has happened, not because you want to put it aside, but because you want to do something much better.”

The lawmakers — who include 21 women, a record here — now begin the difficult work of executing the much-anticipated and possibly awkward power-sharing deal. Under it, the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, becomes prime minister and the ruling party and opposition divide the Cabinet posts.

This was the deal to bring back peace to Kenya, which had been considered one of the most stable countries in Africa before the violence of recent months.

On Thursday, Kibaki urged the Parliament to swiftly pass the legislation needed to turn the political agreement into law. Lawmakers on both sides have predicted more skirmishes over the next few weeks as they negotiate how much power Odinga actually gets and how Cabinet positions are reassigned.

Grand Canyon’s Age Placed at 17 Million Years

Coming upon the Grand Canyon long ago, an old prospector is supposed to have said in amazement, “Something awful happened here.”

The something appears to have started happening some 17 million years ago, geologists concluded in a study reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. If correct, that is at least 11 million years earlier than previous estimates.

By dating mineral deposits inside caves up and down the canyon walls, the geologists said they determined the water levels over time, as erosion carved out the mile-deep canyon as it is known today. They concluded that the canyon started from the west, then another formed from the east, and the two broke through and met as a single majestic rent in the Earth some 6 million years ago.

Previous theories had posited 6 million years as the earliest age for the beginning of the entire Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

The new research was conducted by geologists at the University of New Mexico, led by Victor Polyak. The researchers, supported by the National Science Foundation, used an improved uranium-lead dating technique, which yields ages of mineral back tens to hundreds of million years.