National forest recreation fees face overhaul
American Fork Canyon • On any summer Saturday the trailheads at the top of this canyon in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest are choked with Utah residents. They come to ride horses, bikes and ATVS, hike, fish, camp or just drive and look out the window at the backside of Mount Timpanogos' stunning summit. Lower down they fill the picnic areas in a limestone gorge that has become famous as a rock-climbing destination.
More than 1 million visit annually, obliging the U.S. Forest Service to build and maintain a slew of facilities that don't come cheap. Forest-wide, officials estimate they spend $250,000 a year just to keep the restrooms clean and stocked with toilet paper.
A $6-per-vehicle fee has been required of those recreating on the 43,000-acre American Fork-Alpine Loop area to cover some of the costs. Now the fee program is under revision after the agency's national office concluded Uinta-Wasatch-Cache (UWC) and many other forests impose the fees too broadly.
The forest's American Fork Canyon and Mirror Lake Scenic Byway fee areas have been substantially reduced under changes that are open for public comment until the end of July.
"It's more of a reform. If someone is going to just park it doesn't make sense to charge them to use our facilities," said Jon Stansfield, the UWC's Pleasant Grove district ranger, during a recent tour of American Fork Canyon's hotspots like Little Mill and Tibble Fork Reservoir.
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache will replace the Mirror Lake fee area with a system of stand-alone fee sites along the scenic highway that crosses the western flank of the Uintas. Now only visitors parking at one of 18 developed day-use areas such as the Crystal Lake and Highline trailheads and Butterfly Lake fishing site and eight winter trailheads, which feature plowed lots and groom tracks for skiers and snowmobiles, will be required to display the pass, said Jeff Schramm, the Kamas-Heber district ranger who oversees this neck of the forest.
The federal-land recreation fee programs have been in place since the 1990s as a way to help the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management accommodate increasing recreational traffic in some scenic areas. But not everyone was happy.
Blanket fees made sense for areas packed with picnic sites, parking and restrooms, but they chafed users who didn't use these amenities.
"I pay my income taxes. We shouldn't have to pay to use undeveloped public land, but I agree we should pay to camp or use picnic areas," says Gordon Douglass, a Salt Lake City climber who helped develop routes in American Fork Canyon.
Nationally the program brings in about $65 million, 95 percent of which goes to the forests where the funds were raised, according to Jocelyn Biro, the Portland-based national fee program coordinator.
"The fees don't come close to covering the costs of operating and maintaining our recreational facilities," Biro said. "We received appropriated funding, and we use fees and volunteer labor, donations and partnerships. These are the pieces of the puzzle that fund the recreation program."
Hiking on public land is a proud tradition in the West, considered by many to be a birthright that should not carry a price tag. And courts have agreed in cases where the trailheads lack the amenities that justified the fee programs.
So the Forest Service recently re-evaluated the program and decided fees should apply only to visitors who use sites with parking, restrooms, picnic tables, interpretive services and signs, trash receptacles and security, according to Biro.
Under this new guidance, Alpine Loop visitors will be expected to display the fee card from their rearview mirror when they park in paved lots along the 15-mile corridor of State Road 92 above Timpanogos Cave National Monument, over Alpine Summit to Aspen Grove, and along SR 144, the spur road to Tibble Fork Reservoir.
"The assumption is that when you are using trails, you are using the amenities at those trailheads, like parking, restrooms and picnic areas. In that case, the fee applies," Stansfield said. Compliance officers patrol these lots and place reminders under the windshield wipers of fee-dodgers.
Outside this fee corridor, there are three "stand-alone" fee areas: Silver Lake Flat, a trailhead near the end of SR 144; Cascade Springs; and Upper Falls, a picnic area in Provo Canyon. The road to Cascade Springs, which features lots of hiking and dispersed camping, is not subject to the fee. Those just staying in concession-operated campgrounds, which require their own fees, are no longer required to pay the fee at either Mirror Lake or American Fork.
The forest has installed numerous tubes at convenient spots where visitors can deposit cash or check if they don't buy a pass from the information booths at either end of the scenic roads.
In past years, the fee raised about $750,000 at American Fork and $300,000 at Mirror Lake. This revenue stream could dip as a result of the changes, but forest officials say they intend to maintain the same level of services.
Stansfield plans to keep sinking money in high-use sites like Aspen Grove, where one day last year he counted 2,000 hikers on the trail. Plans are afoot to replace bridges and renovate the historic Theater in the Pines there. At Timpooneke, where many embark on hikes up Timpanogos, fee money enlarged and leveled the parking area to 100 stalls last year and built a new restroom that cost $38,000.
Douglass has opposed the American Fork fee since its inception, but he conceded mixed feelings because the Forest Service still needs money to maintain its recreation facilities.
"On the other hand, I wish the federal government would get its priorities straight and spend money on parks and things like that," he said.
How to comment
The U.S. Forest Service is accepting public comment on its revised recreational fee programs for American Fork Canyon and Mirror Lake. Comments should be emailed by July 31 to email@example.com for American Fork and to firstname.lastname@example.org for Mirror Lake.
Under programs in place since 1997, visitors pay $6 per vehicle in the canyon or along the Mirror Lake highway. The fee is good for three days. A $12 pass is good for a week and a $45 pass covers a year at both areas. The changes require visitors to display the pass when they park at developed trailheads and other sites. Details can be found at the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest website, http://1.usa.gov/16QlUsg.
How to comment