The Comptroller General of the United States has turned thumbs down on the Agriculture Department's idea of using volunteers to collect fees in national forests.

In line with the administration's emphasis on voluntarism, many government agencies have been looking around for new ways to use volunteers. So it was that the USDA's Forest Service hit upon a plan to put them to work as "camp ground hosts," emptying the collection boxes that campers on federal forestlands are supposed to use on an honor system.

Not only would these be "middle-aged, mature persons" who would be unlikely to pocket the take, the Forest Service said, but the mere presence of a fee collector undoubtedly would inspire greater respect among campers for the honor system.

The comptroller general, after thrashing over the legislative history of the Volunteers in the National Forests Act, opined that the Forest Service had a bad idea.

Congress envisioned volunteers acting as guides, writing brochures on trees and researching ghost towns but made no mention of collecting the gate. The Senate report emphasized that volunteers were not to do jobs normally assigned to federal employes.

"Collection of fees owed the United States is an inherent governmental function, which may be performed only by federal employes," the comptroller general said in a published opinion.