Hikers, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and campers paying fees to use federal lands often see a return in that investment in the form of nicer facilities, better law enforcement and improved interpretation.
Revenue from Utah federal lands such as Zion National Park, the Mirror Lake Highway or Little Sahara Recreation Area often can run into the millions. At Zion, for example, $1,078,900 in entrance fees were collected last year.
Many visitors are supportive of such fees as long as they go back into the lands where they are charged. But some groups argue they are illegal and a form of double taxation.
Kitty Benzar, executive director of the Durango, Colo.,-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said charging fees to access public lands commercializes public lands.
"They are more like a commercial operation," she said. "That's not what public lands are supposed to be about. There is a federal law that restricts where and for what they can charge fees, and the Forest Service and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] are in violation of that."
That law is the Federal Recreation Lands Enhancement Act, passed by Congress in 2004 as a rider on a budget bill. It mandates that agencies charging fees spend 80 percent of them on projects directly benefitting recreation users.
"Local offices keep the recreation fees that are collected and they are required to reinvest those fees into local recreation programs," said Aaron Curtis, recreation program lead for the Utah Office of the Bureau of Land Management. "By law, we are not allowed to collect recreation fees and use those fees for other BLM programs. They must be recreation-specific projects."
Critics such as Benzar and Montana writer Bill Schneider have no beef with user fees for specific programs such as campground improvements, visitor centers, picnic areas or interpretive programs. But they argue the law does not allow agencies to charge hikers who want to park at a trailhead and go for a hike or backpacking trip in undeveloped areas.
"That toll booth in the middle of the road to access the large area is not legal," said Schneider, who has written extensively on the fee program. "We pay for access to federal lands every April 15 and we shouldn't have to pay again."
The Mirror Lake area adjacent to the High Uintas Wilderness Area is the largest of 96 of what the U.S. Forest Service calls High Impact Recreation Areas (HIRA). One of three U.S. Forest Service HIRAs in Utah American Fork Canyon and Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area are the other two Mirror Lake does feature toll booths. Users who park at trailheads or access the High Uintas Wilderness Areas must pay $6 for a three-day pass.
"The law specifically said they could not charge to park at a trailhead and have general access to a dispersed area," said Benzar, whose website offers news on hikers who have challenged the fees in court. "The Forest Service ignores the restrictions."
According to 2009 statistics, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which includes the Mirror Lake and American Fork Canyon fee areas, collected $1,078,644 in recreation fees. The agency used about $395,000 for maintenance and repair, $508,000 for visitor services, $85,000 for law enforcement, and $10,000 for habitat restoration. It spent $205,411 to collect those fees.
"The key thing this helps us with is to fund maintenance and upgrade sites along the scenic byway," said Jeff Schramm, district ranger for Heber and Kamas, which includes Mirror Lake.
He said money collected helps maintain the trail system and build new restrooms. A look at the latest report on what the recreation fee program paid for includes increasing law-enforcement patrols, bear safety efforts, visitor education, repairing a free use wildlife viewing telescope, printing and distributing a brochure on the area, and plowing snow from winter trailheads.
National parks use these recreation dollars as well. The fees are not as controversial in those places, largely because people are used to paying them. The first entrance fee was established in 1909 at Washington's Mt. Rainier.
At Zion, for example, money has been used to improve park roads, on the shuttle system, to rehabilitate campgrounds, improve trails, and replace restrooms.
The Southeastern Utah Group of parks that includes Arches, Canyonlands and Natural Bridges collected $1.3 million in entrance fees in 2010.
"Fees are not new," said Paul Henderson, a spokesman for the Southern Utah Group. "They are not a Republican idea and not a Democratic idea. They have been around in the Park Service forever. The pervasive view in Congress is that it should pay for basic operations but that for the people who actually use the national parks for hiking and camping, that it's not an unfair thing to pay a little more since they are directly using those things."
America the Beautiful Pass
O The America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass costs $80 and is good for one year from the purchase date. It can be used to cover the entrance or standard amenity fee for the pass holder and passengers in a noncommercial vehicle at per vehicle fee areas and the pass holder and three adults.
Purchase the pass • In person at the park, by calling 1-888-275-8747, ext. 1, or by logging on to store.usgs.gov/pass. Utah National Monuments day use fees
• Golden Spike: $7 summer, $5 winter (good for seven days)
• Timpanogos Cave: $3 (three days), $12 (seven days) American Fork Canyon pass, plus cave entrance fee.
• Grand Staircase-Escalante: Free except at Calf Creek Recreation Area, which is $2 per day.
• Natural Bridges: $6 per vehicle (good for seven days)
• Hovenweep: $6 per vehicle (good for seven days)
• Cedar Breaks: $4 per person 16 and older (good for seven days)
• Dinosaur: Free until 2012 Utah National Recreation Area day use fees
• Glen Canyon: $15 per vehicle (good for seven days)
• Flaming Gorge: $5 per day, $15 for seven days, per vehicle.